By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
SINCE THE HAVES WILL REALLY decide if this strike gets averted, and the Have Nots all know it, let’s first see where the moguls stand. Since most of the majors own movie studios, networks and production companies, the TV industry is the engine driving this strike — it’s where the writers believe they have leverage — and not the film biz (which was able to plan for a walkout well in advance and has plenty of projects in the can). My reporting shows that many moguls actually welcome a strike because they believe the 2007-08 TV season is dead on arrival anyway. But I don’t understand the willingness of the networks to so readily give up eyeballs that may never return to broadcast television. Consider all those young dudes who made Halo 3 the biggest entertainment release ever.
The WGA’s TV writers, who make up the vast majority of the guild membership, however, have been clearly operating under an illusion. Intense pressure is coming from them to strike sooner rather than later in order to hurt the prime-time business to the greatest extent possible, and a walkout even as late as January 1 could mean that TV prime time even for the 2008-09 season is toast. The TV writers argue that waiting until January 1 would allow most shows to bank six to eight more scripts, and the only real way for the WGA to wield palpable power is to shut down the TV season as soon as possible. Now I find out that this would play into the hands of the moguls ready to give up the season entirely and rely on programming more cheap reality-TV and game shows than scripted series.
Individually, I see the moguls breaking down into only two groups, not the three groups from the previous strike. So instead of hawks and moderates and conservatives, there are now only hawks and conservatives:
Conservatives: Les Moonves (CBS), Ron Meyer (Universal), Brad Grey (Paramount), Amy Pascal (Sony Pictures Entertainment), Harry Sloan (MGM, which also reps United Artists in this), Jeffrey Katzenberg (DreamWorks Animation, and the most moderate of the bunch).
Sloan’s struggling MGM, with all its financing and box-office problems, needs a strike right now like a hole in the head. Katzenberg wants to play the hero who brokers a compromise, but he doesn’t wield the clout he used to when he headed Walt Disney Studios, so his fellow moguls won’t let him grab headlines.
Zucker, with GE threatening to sell the entertainment unit, can’t get mired in more onerous financial formulas that are going to make his business even worse.
Lynton wants to be a moderate but, like Zucker, needs to lower up-front costs and, like Zucker, answers to a very strong-willed, diversified parent company that demands that the entertainment unit now posting a return on investment in the low single digits at least get back to high single digits (since no one expects double digits anymore).
As for Chernin, Iger, Meyer, Moonves, and also Zucker, they see so many new shows tanking in the ratings and/or going over budget and/or having production problems this TV season that they feel this is as good a time for a strike as any, especially when even returning hits like NBC’s Heroes, ABC’s Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, CBS’ CSI: Miami and Cold Case are losing their ratings mojo.
As one mogul told me, “We can get rid of the overhead and regroup and rethink everything. If we were having a great year, it might be different. But we’re not, and this is like an automatic do-over.”
Here’s another shocker: There have been no meetings held, and none are planned, by the moguls for the moguls — lots of communications by telephone but no brainstorming sessions at one of their sumptuous homes. I don’t doubt they’re too busy throwing Obama fund-raisers and saving the environment to worry about the writers.
Little wonder the moguls are losing the PR war in this pre-strike period. The studio and network bigwigs thought their recent renouncement of residual rollbacks was a “really big deal” concession that would get the writers in a positive frame of mind. So they were shocked that the WGA spun the concession to members as not much of a concession at all, since it never should have been on the table in the first place. “We made a major move, and they’re kicking sand in our face,” a mogul told me.
So the big-shot moguls want to get their unfiltered viewpoint across to the WGA. Katzenberg is floating the idea of “putting a face out there to show we’re human” — presumably his. But other suggestions include holding a press conference, sending one or several studio and/or network bigwigs to the negotiating sessions, starting a “mogul blog” to focus on the strike, or Web streaming a Q&A session with those network and studio chiefs who feign sincerity on an AMPTP Web page better than others.