The Real Deal

It's Halloween time, and you know what's really scary?

Depending on what happens between now and the stroke of midnight on Halloween [cue the spooky organ music] we may be facing ... a winter of reality television.

The clock is running out on the current contract that the Writers Guild of America has with Hollywood. And the new media landscape is the battleground, as reported in Time magazine:

Screens may not dim, but first TV and then the movies will look different if the two parties can't come closer together. The deal-breaker in the negotiations between the WGA and AMPTP is new media content. Those pithy webisodes of The Office and Battlestar Galactica? Someone wrote them, and wants to get paid when you play them on your iPod. In order to avoid a strike, said WGA West President Patric M. Verrone in a statement, "What we must have is a contract that gives us the ability to keep up with the financial success of this ever-expanding global industry." AMPTP says new media is still too new, and revenue is too unpredictable to set up a compensation package that resembles the one used for TV shows, in which writers get paid every time their rerun of Golden Girls airs.
So what happens if the writers and the studios can't hammer out details? Yes. You guessed it. Reality shows, with their unofficial slogan of "We don't need no stinkin' writers!" According to the Associated Press:
With Hollywood writers poised to log off their laptops as soon as Thursday, TV networks were bracing for the need to fill the airwaves with reality shows, game shows and even reruns if a threatened strike devours their script inventory.

Viewers could start seeing an onslaught of unscripted entertainment by early next year, when popular series such as "Desperate Housewives" and "Heroes" run out of new episodes.

Gre-e-e-e-a-a-a-t. Just what America's been hunting for – a crop of shows that couldn't make the cut, while shows that actively made you dumber, like "Age of Love" could.

But what's most interesting – in the long term, since the short term worst-case scenario is giving me the shakes – is that TV strikes tend to reconfigure the landscape of the nightly entertainment offerings. As noted on this week's "On the Media" broadcast, the last strike placed news magazines squarely on the map:

Nineteen-eighty-eight was the last time there was a strike. It lasted 22 weeks. It cost the industry about $500 million. And almost immediately you could see the evidence of the strike on your TV screen.

If you remember the proliferation of primetime news magazines, it was already under way before that point, but it really was helped by the writers' strike. You saw shows like Primetime Live on multiple nights a week, Dateline --

So the 1988 strike made Stone Phillips a rich, rich man. What will the looming 2007 strike do to our TV schedule? "MILF Island?"

That's a joke of course, based on this season's premiere of "30 Rock." But the most pressing question about the effects of a writer's strike is: If TV jumps the shark to reality programming (more it already has, I mean), how many people will come back? In 1988, MediaLand was a much smaller neighborhood than the megalopolis it is today. Much fewer storefronts to choose from.

If you drive the viewers away, to cable or Netflix or Playstation or (dare I say) pick up a book … there's no guarantee they'll come back this time around.

Writers and Hollywood -- make a deal. Please.