December 12, 2007

Personal essay: I for one welcome the coming meltdown of the television industry.

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

The WGA Writers Strike of 2007
(Image courtesy New York Times.)

So did you hear? I guess after two months, the strike between the Writers Guild of America and the Hollywood studios that hire its members is not going as well as had been previously reported; in fact, it looks like the groups are not going to have a settlement negotiated by Christmas after all, leaving things still totally in the air as far as when everyone in that industry is going to get back to work. And Hollywood being Hollywood, this recent news has already started having long-term negative effects; for example, it's looking likely that the networks are going to run out of new episodes of their current shows long before next spring rolls around (the usual finale time for American shows), which given the usual summer hiatus and ever-delayed fall premieres means that we can realistically expect many of our favorite television shows to not be back on the air with new episodes until next October, a full ten months from when I'm writing today's essay. And this also means, of course, that starting next March or so and lasting God only knows how long, that entire industry is not going to have anything new to put on the air at all, other than shows that require no writing beforehand (like sports, game shows and the like). And given that the television industry basically survives off how much new content it can put on the air, such a thing basically spells the kind of disaster that I think a lot of people aren't even acknowledging yet is in store for that industry; a meltdown kind of disaster, that is, as bad and as serious as a new pub opening without any liquor, or a new shoestore opening without any shoes.

And let's make no mistake, that if forced to choose a side, I firmly fall on the side of the writers when it comes to the current unpleasantness; it's hard not too, frankly, unless you're a studio executive yourself, in that the writers are merely asking here for a fair portion of the money generated from online creative projects by these studios, which the studios are refusing to give by calling such projects "promotional" ones, even as more and more such projects start presenting multi-episode story arcs with full new characterizations and the like. But I guess as I watch the proceedings from the safety of my Chicago apartment, as I laugh with the witty pro-union videos that are getting posted by the striking writers to YouTube on a daily basis, I seem to be asking myself a question that isn't getting discussed a lot in public regarding all this -- of why the WGA thinks that I as an audience member should support the way their industry works in the first place. I mean, seriously, when all is said and done, basically we as television watchers are getting asked to support a group whose members churn out basically 90 percent crap, just unwatchable crap that is literally causing the downfall of intelligent society as we know it; which would not be that big of a deal, of course, except that these writers are getting paid obscene amounts of money to churn out this crap as well. I mean, seriously, WGA, you're really asking me to support the idea of a group of talentless hacks getting paid thousands of dollars to sh-t out another episode of Cavemen? Seriously?

I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it as long as there are people around willing to listen; that the industries of advertising and Hollywood have robbed all of us of an entire generation of artists, an entire generation of thinkers and provocateurs, an entire generation of the people who challenge us as a society to become a better one. And the reason this happened with my generation in particular is because there is just so much freaking money involved with both of these industries now, and a tolerance for cutting-edge artists that never used to exist before; it is the first age in history, for example, where a subversive pamphleteer can actually make six figures a year designing stickers for tennis-shoe companies. And again, just to be clear, I don't fault artists for wanting to make a decent amount of money, for wanting to have a decent life where they're not constantly worrying about the bills; indeed, I'm asking what artist can realistically walk away from such a sweet proposition, where they are given instant middle-class respectability for doing the exact same subversive underground artistic projects they couldn't even give away for free five years previously? What I'm saying is that our entire culture is screwed up if we've gotten to that point; that corporate greed, runaway consumerism and conglomerate-friendly times has turned what we quaintly call the "entertainment industries" (movies, television, music, publishing, etc) into all-consuming monsters, trillion-dollar monsters that barge along eating up anything laid out in front of them, chewing everything up into a bland pulpy mess and pooping out an endless series of Paris Hiltons and Lindsey Lohans and Britney Spears from its smelly rear.

Something needs to change. I and millions of others feel so, which is why these industries have been in such turmoil for the last decade; why the music industry has lost money for something like 13 years in a row now, why the movie industry has had to increase ticket prices an average of 400 percent over the last two decades and are still losing money themselves. Like many other groups at many other times in history, Hollywood started believing that their way of doing things is the only way things have ever been done, and therefore became a victim of its own softening and corruption; as more and more money flowed into the major Hollywood studios, the studios themselves became more and more bloated with middle managers, people who had little to do with the actual creative process but who were needed to keep the giant bureaucratic machine running that drove that billion-dollar organization. And soon you had a situation where these people were entrenched -- where their salaries started taking up more and more of the studio's entire budget, therefore necessitating higher and higher retail prices, generating more and more revenue, driving up these executives' salaries even more, with no one able to do anything about it because of the people in charge being the ones benefiting the most.

I've come across some stuff online recently that's had me really thinking about all this; for example, this new report that recently came out, jointly sponsored by Nokia and The Future Laboratory, which posits that as soon as five years from now, most people will be deriving up to 25 percent of their daily entertainment from non-professional peer projects, things like blogs and YouTube videos and podcasts and the like. The researchers even came up with a name for the phenomenon, "circular entertainment," a term I confess I really like -- this whole idea that, believe it or not, you and your friends are pretty entertaining unto yourselves, and that you don't necessarily have to be forking over insane amounts of money to far-off multinational corporations every time you just want to have a little fun. But if this turns out to be true, this means a huge change to the way the traditional entertainment industries even work; it means, for example, that instead of the average American watching (say) four hours of television a night, by half a decade from now they'll only be watching three, a financial change of billions of dollars when translated to unsold advertising.

That's what I find so funny about the common argument to all the things I'm talking about today, the thing people say when they want to defend the old way these studios have been doing things; that if you suddenly hand over that much control to a decentralized group of non-professionals putting out free work, how will you possibly generate the same kind of money that's currently being generated? And the answer of course is that you don't -- that the amount of revenue Hollywood has been generating recently is flawed from the start, artificially inflated and bound to crash sooner or later, and that people in the entertainment industries need to start getting used to the idea of their industries simply not making nearly as much money as they did before. And ultimately of course this is not a situation artists should be bemoaning but rather celebrating, because the fat that gets trimmed in such a situation is mostly the exact middle-man executives who were bloating things up to begin with; because that's what all this new technology in the entertainment industry does, is eliminate the need for most of those executives in the first place. After all, if a musician can record and edit and make a master of their new album all on their home computer, what suddenly is the need for that expensive studio and engineer? If a band can distribute their album directly through a combination of iTunes and MySpace, why bother hiring a distributor? Or the people who run that distribution company? Or the people hired to drive your CDs to all those scattered record stores? Or the snotty 27-year-old hipsters hired to go out to clubs every night and "scout out" new talent? Paid for with the money from your record sales! Cheese and Rice!

I was struck recently by something music producer Steve Albini was saying, during his interview with Jesse Thorn this Halloween over at the public-radio show "The Sound of Young America" -- how in his opinion, now is a crucial time for artists to stop thinking of themselves as hired guns being brought into a giant factory, and start recognizing themselves as the mini-factories they all now are, thanks to all this new technology I've been talking about. How we are rapidly moving into an age where artists are becoming their own little brands, their own little empires, fully in charge of their own destinies; how the name of the game in the future will not be "scoring" a contract with a major studio/label/house, but rather working in tandem with their existing audience to pull off all the details that used to only come from major contracts, occasionally banding with other artists to form temporary "federations" directed towards a specific project (say, an expensive international tour).

I think this is a great way to think about the future of the arts, and an infinitely smart way as well, a way that I would encourage all of CCLaP's readers to think of the arts too; that as the meltdown of the traditional Hollywood industries continue apace, what we are really witnessing is the meltdown of the traditional, bloated way of doing things, not a meltdown of the arts itself, nor a meltdown of audience intelligence, nor a meltdown of artistic opportunities. That after the turmoil is over, we're going to see a situation much more beneficial to the artists themselves, and that like Albini I encourage all artists out there to embrace this new way of doing things as quickly as they can, not desperately grasp for the last crumbs of the dying old paradigm. So Writers Guild of America, please believe me when I say that I'm on your side, that I feel for you in this hour of unionized solidarity, and I wish you the best of luck; but please, stop asking me to sign petitions and record my own support video and all the rest. You know in your heart of hearts that 75 percent of your WGA peers are talentless hacks who deserve to be fired, no matter how little you can cop to such statements in public; and in a post-studio entertainment world, one where the artists themselves are miniature creative factories, it is these hacks who will eventually wither away, leaving a purer form of meritocracy that will ultimately create a larger amount of great shows we all passionately love. I'm hoping and working for a world like that, which ultimately means an end to the current way of doing things, which ultimately means that it works to my benefit for your strike to last as long as possible and to cause as much damage as possible. Er...sorry.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:52 PM, December 12, 2007. Filed under: Arts news |