Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Most certainly the time has come to let me subscribe to Comedy Central and dump the rest of those. If I really want to watch "Spongebob", I’ll go to the Nick web site where I can also play games. In fact, if I could get Dish Network to dump Viacom right now, I'd watch Comedy Central shows on the web.
Viacom, of course, is one of those greedy media conglomerates that's telling SAG this isn't the time for seeking more money.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
"The contentious and at times bitter meeting capped a roller-coaster four days for SAG, in which opposition to the guild leadership's call for strike authorization has crystallized."
Perhaps what's most disturbing is that many of the well-known millionaire "actors" leading the opposition have resumés filled with "producer" credits. None of these people are facing their elder years supported by income from being a Walmart greeter.
The question is: How can a new bargaining committee get more than $46 a year for new media "rerun" views as opposed to what they get from network and syndicated reruns and from DVD sales? And if they don't get more, can "day performers" survive?
Right now we see younger familiar faces with no name recognition doing bit parts within the "CSI" and "Law & Order" families of shows. Reruns on the various cable channels give them some income to keep them going.
If in the future, rerun views shift to the internet derived from source sites such the GE and News Corp. owned Hulu, that $46-per-year typical residual won't be much of a long-term income plan even when combined with waiting tables. If nothing else, those rerun residuals created a "ownership society" cushion during the wrenching mid-life career change away from acting.
It's difficult to understand why GE and News Corp. don't understand the risks of reducing the incentive for younger actors. Do they have in mind a return to a "contract-class" of studio-owned actors like in the mid-1930's through the early 1950's? Or do they have no idea what they're doing just like the major financial institutions? GE in particular focuses entirely on next quarter's profit increases and dumps any subsidiary that fails to meet the goals. The problem is the subsidiaries aren't allowed much room to invest profits into planning for the long term.
Now probably isn't the time for an actors strike, because GE and News Corp. would be happy to let them be on strike during the time ad revenue plunges in 2009. Reduced production costs would mean better quarterly net revenues.
Had SAG and WGA coordinated an approach to shutting down production in a single strike beginning on April 1, 2008, they might have achieved their objectives within 60 days. Now the economy is in the tank, a shocked WGA is in a legal wrangle with the conglomerates over the post-2007 new media residuals clause in their contract, and SAG is tied up in a bitter internecine power struggle.
Welcome to WalMart folks.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Here’s what I see for the upcoming Winter Season 8-10 pm Monday prime time. Fox with “House” plus “24" and CBS with it’s comedy lineup will own a significant chunk of the audience for scripted programming. ABC will grab off the reality audience chunk with 90 minute “The Bachelor” followed by the popular “Samantha Who”. The younger crowd (along with many of us younger at heart) will be watching either The CW’s “Gossip Girl” and “One Tree Hill” or ABC Family’s “Secret Life of the American Teenager” and “Kyle XY”. And the crime procedural fans will reject that 10 hours of programming to watch TNT’s “The Closer”, slated to return in January in the 9-10 pm slot.
You see, Jeff, to me, it makes no sense that you would allow the new Leno talk variety show to block NBC from putting any scripted shows in from 10-11 pm. After all, compared to the competition outlined above from 8-10 pm, why would you not want to try a scripted show against CBS “CSI: Miami”, ABC “True Beauty” and TNT “Trust Me.” Why would you keep NBC’s scripted shows where they can’t possibly get any ratings - the 8-10 pm slots.
How about Tuesday 8-10 pm, Jeff? Fox, of course, has that little cult show called “American Idol” which will be followed by “Fringe”. CBS has those time slot almost thrown away with sweeps winners “NCIS” and “The Mentalist” And ABC is practically giving up with their new “Homeland Security USA” docucopsoap and that worthless show you cancelled, “Scrubs”. And The CW is always a pushover with such fluff as “90210" and “Privileged” (the latter to be replaced by “Reaper” in March).
I guess it make sense to you that the new Leno talk variety show would block NBC from putting any scripted shows in from 10-11 pm. What? Someone told you that no one would want to try a scripted show against CBS “Without a Trace” and ABC’s struggling/cancelled “Eli Stone”. After all, you would also be facing TNT’s “Leverage” and FX “Nip/Tuck” which apparently might pull in 8 million viewers? Otherwise, why would you schedule Leno there instead of a good scripted show.
The rest of the week 8-10 pm is, of course, similarly structured with your competition scheduling what you must think are their weak shows. Yep, you wouldn’t want to schedule something other than Leno against those Thursday 10 pm heavyweights like “Private Practice” and “Eleventh Hour”, when you can put your scripted shows against “Grey’s Anatomy” and “CSI”. And you can put one of your scripted shows not only against them Thursday, but also against “Burn Notice” which is on some cable network - USA, ever heard of it? NBCU owns it. Why would you have Leno on at 10 pm so you have no choice but to screw two of your properties, NBC and USA.
I know, I know. Advertisers are already cheering you, so you’ll be a hero at GE for a couple of more quarters. The ad buyers think Leno is more DVR proof. They, of course, don’t know that in our home we DVR both Leno and Letterman every night, to be watched the following day skipping all those (and I mean “all” those) commercials and the many segments of show we don’t want to watch. The ad buyers must think we’re not representative of the future of television. Unlike us, they think other people are getting DVR’s just so they can watch Leno’s commercials live and the repeat them a few times. Have you sold the 9 pm Sunday slot to these same morons?
In December 2007 I wrote here: “Yes, that ad supported NBC channel you watch now may degenerate into only news, sports, and televaudeville.” But Jeff, I really didn’t think you would actually try to do that.
Then again, you probably realize it doesn’t matter. You probably know the schedule for January already contains 60 hours a week of scripted programming in prime time without NBC. And half of it is good, without NBC.
I could get along without NBC. But I have a fondness for the network that dates back to the 1950's when my uncle was a producer for NBC programming. And I have a focus on scripted programming. So don’t let the GE corporate view completely destroy NBC as a source of scripted programming.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
From an historical standpoint, it's going to be a riveting drama. But from the standpoint of a long-time (56 years) American TV viewer who loves scripted TV, it's depressing. It is the logical real world outcome of shifts in organizational theory, the collapse of the international labor movement, and the simultaneous rise of the international corporate economy in the last half of the 20th Century. Within that larger framework, a scenario has evolved with its tensions and real characters.
The protagonist is Screen Actors Guild (SAG) President Alan Rosenberg. He's had years of significant roles in TV and movies. He's been a political militant all his life. During the 'radical' 60s, Rosenberg became a member of the Black Panthers and was an active protestor of the Vietnam War. He's from a show business family and is married to actress Marg Helgenberger.
Rosenberg may be an anachronism within the current American labor climate in that he strongly believes labor should get a larger piece of the pie than it has over the last three decades and it is worth a major sacrifice to get it.
Flashback - Rosenberg describes to the crowd the crux of the drama’s conflict from his perspective: “Fair play doesn't pertain in bargaining. What matters there is leverage. Here (pointing to the crowd) is the leverage. Our leverage is that we're the product. We took a bad deal for cable 25 years ago. We took a horrible deal for VHS 20 years ago. We won't be fooled again.”
While most of SAG’s 120,000 members are probably sympathetic to the idea they've been screwed for 30 years, most also are typical of Americans - up to their ears in debt and not willing to sacrifice their cars and homes for principles. My guess is that Rosenberg and Helgenberger were not one of those couples whose lifestyle is in serious financial jeopardy because of last year’s writers strike. The dramatic dilemma for Rosenberg is that he has no real leverage unless he can get a “strike vote” from 75% of the SAG membership.
Our drama has two principal antagonists. The first is Jeff Zucker. In 2005 Zucker was promoted to Chief Executive Officer of NBC Universal Television Group behind Bob Wright, vice chairman of General Electric and chairman & CEO of NBC Universal. On February 6, 2007, to the position of president & CEO of NBC Universal (NBCU), replacing Wright.
Zucker is the perfect historical antagonist to Rosenberg. He is the son of a cardiologist, was captain of his high school tennis team, a Harvard graduate who majored in history and was President of the Harvard Crimson, who was hired by NBC in 1988 to research material for its coverage of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. From there he became the Executive Producer of the Today Show at age 26 and has continued to rise in the NBCU organization.
In contrast to the relatively small SAG organization, NBCU is a subsidiary of General Electric Company (GE), the world’s third largest multinational conglomerate considered by many to be the most successful conglomerate. Despite the recent economic collapse, on October 10, 2008 Zucker’s boss, GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt, reported that third quarter revenues from continuing operations were $47.2 billion, up 11%. “Our infrastructure and media businesses continued to see signs of strength,” Immelt explained. “NBC Universal grew segment profit 10%, its eighth straight quarter of growth.”
GE’s financial subsidiary, GE Capital, did report problems related to the general economy. But there is no real need for the American taxpayer to worry about this subsidiary of the world’s third largest conglomerate. On November 12, 2008, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation approved GE Capital as an eligible entity under the FDIC's Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program, under which the FDIC guarantees GE Capital's senior unsecured debt.
Yes, Zucker, as the outwardly congenial “company man” fronting for an impersonal international conglomerate, is the perfect antagonist to Rosenberg. Early this year, Zucker addressed the perennial question about whether General Electric was thinking about selling NBC. "As things have improved with NBC Universal and NBC prime time, those questions have subsided. It's all about performance. If we perform, the question goes away. If we don't perform, they should sell us."
But there is a second antagonist. Rupert Murdoch is described as an Australian-American global media mogul. He is the major shareholder, chairman and managing director of News Corporation (News Corp) which owns all the various Fox media brands. Murdoch's father was a powerful Australian newspaper proprietor and his mother the daughter of a wealthy Irish family. After attending Oxford, Murdoch became managing director of News Limited in 1953. From those not very humble beginnings, Murdoch built News Corp, a holding company which is the world's largest media conglomerate. According to the 2008 Forbes 400, Murdoch is the 109th-richest person in the world, with a net worth of $8.3 billion.
If one might doubt that Rosenberg family struggled much financially during the writers strike, one might be tempted to think Murdoch didn’t know the strike was going on. One would be wrong because, unlike Zucker, for Murdoch everything that affects his business empire is very personal. And very much like Rosenberg, Murdoch understands that everything he does is political.
The nature of the battle between the media congloms versus organized labor during the past 18 months is clear. Much like the financial institutions that recently collapsed, the congloms don’t care about the public, the workers, or the shareholders. The attitudes of management reflect an ego oriented self-assured manipulative aggression. And they are good at it as they control significant elements of the flow of information around the world.
The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) representing Zucker and Murdoch clearly had a plan to crush the creative guilds built around all the flaws the membership of the guilds themselves created.
Unlike the AMPTP which is made up of the dominating conglomerates plus others, the guilds are made up of squabbling creative egos. The struggles within the WGA and SAG make them look like the Italian Parliament, unable to suppress “healthy” dissent long enough to create a healthy being. To get the two guilds to work in unison against AMPTP would be, at best, a daydream for a serious labor organizer.
So, AMPTP was given many gifts by the workers. To begin with, the labor contracts didn’t all expire at the same time. So the WGA contract expired October 31, 2007. Talks began on July 13, 2007 with AMPTP making the following ultimatum as reported by Variety :
"As for the proposals, the AMPTP beat the guild by several hours in disclosing its official demands. The companies told WGA members they have two choices:
"1. Maintain the status quo via a three-year contract that provides for a study centered on revamping compensation in order to figure out how to pay writers from revenues from the plethora of new-media platforms. Agreeing to the study would keep the current residuals system in place with increases in salary minimums to be negotiated.
"2. If there's no study on revamping compensation, the companies will play hardball and demand a four-year deal that will institute a recoupment-based residuals system -- meaning that writers receive residuals only after companies have made back their basic costs of development, production and marketing."
In other words, the proposal from the congloms was “you agree to give us the content you create over the next three years and we will study how to compensate you for our use of it.” And at no point in time prior to the beginning of the strike November 3, 2007 did the congloms improve that offer.
As I wrote in December, it was obvious that AMPTP was bargaining in bad faith in order to force the WGA to strike which created a de facto lockout of other workers including SAG members.
Among those locked out were directors who, though directors are clearly middle management, belong to a guild of their own - the Directors Guild of America (DGA). The AMPTP intended to use locking out its middle management personnel in the DGA to manipulate the course of events. Naturally, the AMPTP was very successful. By the middle of December, the DGA announced it was going to negotiate with AMPTP on its contract which wasn’t due to expire until June 2008.
And indeed, after “highly productive” informal talks, the DGA and AMPTP met January 12, 2008, and wrapped up a deal six days later. It didn’t take much for middle-management and management to agree on a deal.
This ramped up the pressure on the WGA. And there already was pressure. WGA members were complaining. Craft and Teamsters union members were hostile. The public was hostile. Even within SAG which was facing its own contract expiration in June, actors were divided. So much for a united front from labor. The congloms had won.
Or had they?
Sure, a WGA contract “modeled” on the DGA contract came soon after January. But Alan Rosenberg refused to accept this model, despite it being embraced by SAG’s competitor AFTRA. He just waited right up through, and well beyond, the expiration of the existing contract in June, explaining it was a bad contract for creative workers.
Even after his own membership elected new Board members to get things moving, he held his ground. And the new Board members, not wishing to be seen as totally incompetent, gave him more time by asking for federal mediation.
Just one day before the first mediated meeting between AMPTP and SAG, WGA members finally figured out they were screwed in the new contract. From Variety:
"In a move echoing the bitter disputes surrounding the 100-day WGA strike, the Writers Guild of America West has accused the conglomerates of failing to comply with the guild's 8-month-old contract.
"The move elicited a sharp denial by the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, which asserted that the WGA has misinterpreted the terms of the deal that ended the strike by wrongly asserting that it covers projects prior to start of the agreement.
"The WGA announced Wednesday that it has filed for arbitration over alleged nonpayment of new-media residuals for programs sold as electronic downloads, also known as electronic sell-through (EST). WGA West board member John Bowman, who headed the guild's negotiating committee, said the contract with the companies on electronic sell-through covers feature films produced after July 1, 1971, and TV programs produced after 1977.
"'The companies have reneged on this agreement and are taking the position that only programs produced after Feb. 13, 2008, are covered by the new provision,' he added. 'This may be their deal with the DGA, but that was never our agreement. Every proposal we made during negotiations made clear our position that library product was covered, and the AMPTP never objected to that position. The guild will not allow this to stand.'
"The AMPTP shot back that the WGA is mistaken about how the new-media residuals apply."
And so the mediated talks between an unbending AMPTP and SAG failed when Rosenberg presented this news of bad faith bargaining by AMPTP. And Rosenberg can now ask SAG members to consider authorizing a strike.
Zucker, Murdoch, and their fellow conglomerate CEO’s are willing to bet Rosenberg can’t persuade 75% of the SAG voting membership to approve a strike. If they are right, they will have effectively broken organized labor in the media industry. If they are wrong, the next question will be: "Will the congloms risk a strike?"
Maybe Rosenberg can pull off a “Norma Rae” win saving what little bit of influence labor has in this country. It will be a true “Hollywood drama” with consequences for the rest of us. Sure, the potential consequences include disrupting our TV. But the consequences potentially include American labor giving up on more than a century of workers seeking a fair and equitable share of the American dream.
I rooted for a fictional "Norma Rae" and now I'm rooting in real life for Alan Rosenberg. And I'll donate to a strike fund for all the affected media workers if it comes to that.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
In a fortuitous confluence of events, Thursday Rosenberg was able to bring to the bargaining table a copy of a Writers Guild of America (WGA) request for arbitration about the very subject Rosenberg has been arguing. The WGA just now discovered they screwed up (again) when eight months ago they signed an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) following the Directors Guild of America settlement. As Rosenberg kept pointing out, the DGA/WGA contract provisions for new media residuals were flawed.
It’s easy to understand what’s happening. If you buy on a DVD a movie released prior to February 13, 2008, the screen writers get paid pursuant to the 2008 contract. If you buy the same movie as a download, the screen writers do not get paid. Apparently, this is the formula that applies to the director (and to the actors under the AFTRA contract), and it’s the formula AMPTP wants SAG to accept.
New media issues are where Rosenberg drew a line in the sand and started his long march towards a strike vote.
It is not complicated at all. If a pre-2008 movie or television show owned by General Electric Corporation (all the NBC Universal related studios) or News Corp (all the Fox related studios) in 2010 is being purchased mostly as an on line download, the corporation gets the money that historically would go to writers, directors, and actors. It’s a big and unjustified win for GE and News Corp.
In one news report we see the following:
“WGA West board member John Bowman, who headed the guild's negotiating committee, said the contract with the companies on electronic sell-through covers feature films produced after July 1, 1971, and TV programs produced after 1977.
"’The companies have reneged on this agreement and are taking the position that only programs produced after Feb. 13, 2008, are covered by the new provision,’ he added. ‘This may be their deal with the DGA, but that was never our agreement. Every proposal we made during negotiations made clear our position that library product was covered, and the AMPTP never objected to that position. The guild will not allow this to stand.’"
It has been hard to understand the overall situation as an industry outsider. I try to understand it based upon my experience with the media conglomerates as a buyer of electronic music media. So far, in our household we’ve been screwed out of the licenses for about 150 tracks of music during the period the conglomerates showed total disregard for the rights of their paying music customers. In the end, of course, they lost and unlicensed mp3 downloads are the norm. It was hard for them to sue the thousands and thousands customers who told them that their contract (license) sucked and proceeded to share music. But I’m still out about 150 licenses I paid for and certainly Sony doesn’t care.
Unfortunately, those who actually create the art, be it in music or movies or TV shows, are not in a position to protect their financial interest except through contracts with the conglomerates. And the last time, the writers and actors felt they got screwed in their contract provisions for DVD revenue.
This time around the writers, who went out on strike trying to protect their interests, were again screwed by AMPTP. But they were also screwed by their fellow workers and themselves. I guess that is because some members of these “guilds” don’t like to think of themselves as belonging to a union, so the writers and apparently a lot of actors don’t get the fact that the directors are not workers, they’re middle management who have a whole different set of interests and frequently do not depend on “union scale” set in the guild contract.
When, in the middle of the writers strike, the DGA started negotiations early and settled on a contract, the DGA - “middle management” - essentially sold out the creative workers and caused unprecedented pressure on the WGA to settle.
The rank and file of the Hollywood union movement failed to back the writers. After being out of work for several months and under pressure from some GE subsidiary for payments on debt, they wanted the writers to settle with GE so GE could make a lot more money on the backs of the workers.
While SAG members did walk around on sidewalks with picket signs supporting the writers, many still continued to work finishing movies and episodes of TV shows that had already been written. Yep, real solidarity there.
And there was really little Rosenberg could do as his own members owed money to GE Capital and they weren’t about to risk anything more than they absolutely had too. No “workers of the world unite” spirit there.
Now, of course, we’ll see what happens. This WGA dispute reminds one of the United Auto Workers situation in Detroit. It’s older writers and actors whose income depends on the residuals for films and TV series released before 2008. Just like it’s the UAW retirees who are frequently characterized as the burden on the U.S. auto industry.
If we could just dump these stupid unions and euthanize everyone over 55, our country wouldn’t be a drag on the international corporations. And the rest of us could watch movies and TV in total happiness.
Gee Rosenberg, as the writers struggled last year, the directors “got it”, the Teamsters and other trade union members “got it”, and finally the writers “got it” along with the AFTRA actors. Why don’t you “get it”? Even the majority of SAG members want to be reduced to WalMart class compensation. Or do they? We’ll see.
The rest of you. How would you vote regarding a strike authorization?
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
It doesn't delve into the problems created by the EchoStar Communications Corporation split this year, or even indicate an awareness of the balance sheet differences between November 2007 EchoStar Communications Corporation and November 2008 Dish Network, differences which are like night and day.
It does identify a truth that should dominate the rest of the analysis of the company. It's "Charlie Ergen's company."
When Charlie was a 30-something, he started EchoStar. When Charlie was 40-something he got EchoStar DBS going.
Charlie will be 56 in March. The now "Old Charlie" still may be a tenacious techie dreamer. Probably he has a really good idea for that 700MHz spectrum Dish Network is on the hook for. But finding what amounts to startup money in 2009 to do anything with that spectrum isn't going to be improbable, it's going to be all but impossible. And I believe Charlie's heart is with the new Echostar, the one that owns Slingbox and makes the ViP receiver/recorder boxes. That Charlie isn't the logical 21st Century mentor of the new Dish Network.
The new Dish Network is a retail service operation. Like WalMart, it demands clever marketing while renegotiating contracts with its suppliers, the various media companies and local channel owners. But that's also where the WalMart analogy completely breaks down. Acquiring those television signals can't be outsourced to producers in third world countries so Dish's prices can be kept low and still maintain a meaningful profit margin. The analogy to WalMart is flawed.
DirecTV and the new Dish Network compete against established cable and telecom companies that offer at least three products: (1) television signals, (2) internet connections, and (3) telephone service.
All these television signal providers are now selling insert advertising. On the other hand, Dish Network's sibling EchoStar designs and sells boxes designed to skip advertising while Dish Network needs to get a cash flow stream going from those ads.
DirecTV has already hedged it's hardware bets by repartnering with TiVo which is run by a former NBC executive and is already working to help advertisers get through to commercial skipping viewers (see this article). DirecTV has a cousin's relationship with media producers and has already put it's toe in the media production market. And in 2007-2008 it committed huge sums to the only real product it has to sell - TV signals - and huge sums to market to new customers during the runup to a major change in it's product from analog SD TV to digital HD TV.
Yes, EchoStar Communications Corporation offered HD early, developing really cool hardware and offering pioneering HD signals from HDNet and VOOM, much like a 20-something techie fiddling in the garage, definitely not like a 50-something marketing veteran laying out a 5-year plan for dominating a market. Then, just as it started losing the HD retail market advantage, EchoStar Communications Corporation split itself in two in what appeared for all intents and purposes to be a maneuver by Charlie to sell it's retail service component, Dish Network, and keep the garage, Echostar. That didn't work because nobody bought Dish Network before the economic meltdown.
In fact today Dish Network superficially looks like the WalMart of television signal providers. But the analysts' analogy is wrong. Dish Network has no real control of the cost of it's product and most certainly has no control over the content in its product. The advantage has gone to its competitor who recognized the truth about its mature product - TV channels. What appeared to be a somewhat expensive contract for a "cable" channel signal was, in fact, all DirecTV had to market. To DirecTV it wasn't foolishly signing too expensive contracts for signals, it was investing in the future, it fit into a logical market plan. Charlie is still holding out for bargain basement prices.
In the meantime, 50-something-Charlie's Echostar decided to make cool DVR boxes for OTA television viewers. These viewers, so far in the 40 years of "cable" channel existence, have had no need for "cable" channels and, apparently, wouldn't spend the money on a TiVo. And irony of ironies, Charlie has Dish Network dealing with the retail problems of these boxes which likely will alienate many who will ultimately switch to a signal provider, most likely an uncomplicated one which would either be cable or telecom company.
The only good advice in that article is this: "So, revisit Dish shares next year. Your Wal-Mart shares have served you better in 2008; those are down only a few bucks in the past six months and up year-to-date."
Yes, let's see what the new Dish Network without the new EchoStar looks like next November. Maybe Old Charlie really does have his finger on the door-to-door retail television signal service market.
Heck, I'm already "invested" heavily just as a customer of this company I think is analogous to the 1999 K-Mart. I'm eagerly awaiting its February "Blue Light Specials" (annual package and pricing changes) and wondering if it will ultimately need its "Sears Holding."
Saturday, November 1, 2008
Lifetime is repeating all six previous episodes next week. If you like family comedy, give it a try. I think you'll like it.
The plot summary: A woman who is nearing 40 works in a "Bed, Bath and Beyond" type of store starts a garage band with her neighbor, her mail carrier, and her teenage daughter's boyfriend, while her husband picks up some of the chores.
The adult regulars in the cast are familiar faces, including:
Rita (the lead character) - Nicole Sullivan (The King of Queens, Kim Possible, many others)
Patty (the mail carrier) - Tisha Campbell-Martin (My Wife and Kids, many others)
Jay (the husband) - Richard Ruccolo (you'll recognize him)
Owen (the unemployed neighbor) - Ian Gomez (Drew Carey, Jake in Progress, many others)
Thursday, October 30, 2008
"The producing team of Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert enjoyed considerable success a few years back with "Hercules" and "Xena,"....
"...There's nothing howlingly bad here (except perhaps for a few of the supporting performances), but nothing particularly distinctive, either. Rather, "Legend of the Seeker" feels like a hodgepodge of better sci-fi/fantasy fare, including slow-motion action sequences that looked way-cool in "300" and this time around merely feel like a cheap way of ensuring nobody gets clipped by an errant sword.
"Disney is producing and distributing the 22-episode order, which in light of the show's youth-oriented qualities could easily have played on one of the studio's cable platforms. Thus exploring the wilds of firstrun syndication is probably the most daring aspect of "Seeker's" familiar quest."
But I'm a great deal less jaded than many reviewers and feel more like these comments in TV Squad:
"Wow, "syndicated adventure series." Whatever happened to all of those cheesy syndicated adventure shows that used to dot the television landscape?...There aren't too many of them anymore, replaced by reality, home improvement, court shows, and talk shows, or not replaced at all.
"...It sounds silly and over the top and Legend of the Seeker is a horrible title (unless you're making a kids video game or a follow-up to the self-help book The Secret), but this could actually be a lot of fun...."
Personally, I like traditional fantasy over reality TV which is not only fantasy but frequently a depressing attempt to provide escapist entertainment. I prefer evil wizards to Donald Trump.
Because it's syndicated, it is offered on an independent or affiliated channel in each area of the country, though not in all DMA's. And, of course, it may not be available from your local channel in HD. But do not despair as it is offered nationally on WGN starting at 5 pm EDT (also see schedules for KTLA and WPIX). It will be repeated on Sunday.
The show has an official web site where you can put in your Zip Code to find out which local channel it is on. There is also a 10-minute preview video that was presented earlier this month on a 30-minute special hosted by Lucy Lawless (apparently the special is available from iTunes). An unofficial web site is also up and running.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
You need to watch the video before any of this post makes sense. With that said, here it goes folks.
The video demonstrates how truly stupid the February 2009 digital "cutoff" is, a government mandated technological change that will have the most negative effect on the most vulnerable - mostly poor and dependent people.
There is no logical reason not to continue analog TV broadcasts for another five years while people discover that another choice for broadcast TV has been developing and actually represents something desirable. The cutoff is a move by the covetous, enabled by a bunch of mostly old men in Congress several years ago who either (1) really don't care much about what happens in the day-to-day lives of mostly poor and dependent people or (2) are just too dumb to see the big picture.
The video clearly presents the absurdity of the policy. Yeah, there are phone numbers in addition to web sites, and government coupons that are confusing and don't cover help with installation, and boxes that may or may not work in your location. None of that resolves the fundamental flaws in the policy.
Many are going to be surprised. No one took their "land lines" away from them before they began to appreciate the value of the cell phone, and most still have land lines. Before this video, I never saw anything in the new, spiffy media that truly addressed the impact of this change.
Unfortunately, some have gotten hung up because the video using humor portrays the difficulty affecting a member of the population that will have the most members struggling - old people, people my age.
Some have taken offense that the character is portrayed as an "elderly, almost senile woman." Senile. The term is applied to older people and it means a deterioration, an illness, which as we age we all fear more or less.
In fact, a better term has entered the lexicon more recently to describe what is depicted in the video: "clueless", which means "Lacking understanding or knowledge." (Dictionary.com). The problem is "clueless" behavior at any age resembles to some degree "senility." It's just that old people get tagged with "senility" when they are just "clueless", which is ageism and is as disturbing as overt racism, sexism, etc.
In this case, an older person was used because a greater percentage of people over 60 are "technologically challenged" than in other age groups. Don't let your internal "politically correct" alarm stand in the way of understanding the basic message of the video. The person portrayed in the video is not senile, just clueless, and it has nothing to do with ageism.
The February 2009 analog TV cutoff will affect people of all ages most of whom are among the least able to cope with the change and who are most dependent on broadcast TV. And this humorous video brings that truth out of the closet.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Easy Money is a show that is as well produced and as offbeat HBO's Big Love, AMC's Mad Men, and Fx's The Riches. The only problem is that it debuted in October on Sunday at 9:00 pm on, get this, The CW.
Media Rights Capital (MRC) bought The CW's fall Sunday night prime time. At 7:00 pm they scheduled In Harms Way, a reality series from Dirtiest Jobs' Craig Piligian that features people with dangerous jobs in places like subway tunnels, avalanches, and hurricanes. Not being a reality TV fan, I can't tell you anything about this show. At 8:00 pm they offer Valentine Inc., a truly vacuous show about the Valentine family, a group of Greek gods living in today's Southern California attempting to keep their true identities secret as they do whatever it takes to bring soulmates together, including hiring a romance novel writer who is supposed to help them.
But at 9:00 pm is this incredibly misplaced quality show about a family that runs "Prestige Payday Loans", one of those strip mall check cashing storefronts, and making a fine living at it. The Buffkin's matriarch is Bobette, played by Laurie Metcalf. Morgan Buffkin, her son played by Jeff Hephner (The OC), helps keep the business and family together. The only problem is he's morally troubled by the nature of the business and he inadvertently discovers he may not be her biological son nor sibling to brother Cooper played by Jay R. Ferguson or sister Brandy played by Katie Lowes. You'll recognize the rest of cast as all top actors, also.
Supposedly MRC is committed to 13 episodes of Easy Money (and Valentine, Inc.). However, they have put the shows on 4- to 6-week hiatus supposed to give the writers time to catch up on scripts.
In fact, MRC should find a couple more reality shows to fill the time slots which were in the past, and are today, total losers for The CW. They should dump Valentine, Inc., and shop Easy Money around to the cable channels. Easy Money should have been on HBO. It's that good!
Saturday, October 11, 2008
Eleventh Hour, on the other hand, was better than the Brit version.
The surprise was how much better we liked Rufus Sewell as Dr. Jacob Hood than we did Patrick Stewart and how ok we were with Marley Shelton in the Rachel Young part played in the Brit version by Ashley Jensen (Christina in Ugly Betty).
Sewell really made the Hood part his own with greater force of personality than Stewart.
We hadn't expected the American version pilot to be the same plot as the Brit first episode. The two scripts had the same basic plot outline. The Brit version from Granada Television ran 90 minutes on ITV which did give more time to develop the plot and characters.
But apparently some kind of "artistic differences" at the producer level caused plot changes in subsequent episodes and the Brit version only had four episodes. I hope we will have four seasons and fully realize the show's potential.
Then there's Life on Mars. We watched the English show on BBCA. I loved it, my wife was ambivalent about it. We both did not like the American pilot. The show in this episode was just too much like the Brit version. Whatever else, there were significant cultural differences between 1973 England and 1973 America.
Harvey Keitel was fine (what else?). Jason O'Mara is an actor we like, but and O'Mara is playing Sam too much like John Simm did.
And Gretchen Mol just looks too 21st Century. Liz White in the English version looked and "felt" like a slightly above average young English woman in 1973 struggling to find a place in law enforcement. Mol looks like a 2008 hottie dressed up for a Halloween Party as a 1973 NYPD police woman.
And here we go again with post 90's American TV pilots squeezing it all in to grab every viewer. In the British version it took a few episodes before Sam even chats with Annie about his secret and his thoughts on what it means. They had no need to develop a male-female intimacy in the first hour because they weren't going to cancel the show if the female 18-39 demo wasn't impressed.
So in the American version we have the new guy, lost, confused and uneasy, just tell some woman in the station: "Hey, I think either I've traveled back in time, this is all a dream, or I'm nuts. Now take me home then let's go solve crimes with our guns and stuff." But hey, she has a degree in psychology. Yeah, maybe, if her degree was in parapsychology, maybe.
The premise of the show isn't bad - how does a 2008 top investigator used to all the 21st Century rules and csi gadgets and criminal databases function in a 1973 police environment? Opportunities for tension and struggle abound.
We will try a few more episodes. But I have my doubts.
The show is Life. Yes, on the surface it's just another police procedural. But it also has a backstory that drives a subplot that is actually moving towards early resolution, not something to keep up ad nauseum as in so many shows.
They did change a supporting character this year and it's a good change.
The show was "given a chance" by NBC airing new episodes on Monday night the past two weeks as well as on its regular time of 10 pm Friday.
I'm hoping that they scheduled it on Friday because it's a less expensive show to produce. And because of that, they might consider shifting it to USA where characters are welcome? Life has some great characters.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
The Tuesday mid-season finale of ABC Family’s "The Secret Life of an American Teenager" beat every show aired by ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and the CW among 18-34 women and 12-34 year old women, and this includes the second week of The CW's "90210". In fact, it beat "90210" by double and triple digit percentages. "Secret Life" was watched by 4.5 million total viewers, "90210" by 3.2 million. Of course, Fox's premier of "Fringe" drew 9 million viewers. But "The Secret Life of an American Teenager" wasn't even on most media experts radar late last spring.
I wanted to know which among the hot industry media covered will be 2008's biggest TV industry news story, "The Secret Life of an American Teenager"? A Google News archive search turns up not one story before June. A search on Fox's "Fringe" turned up about 195 stories. (I probably didn't do the search right.)
Take it from this old guy, "The Secret Life of an American Teenager" is a good show particularly considering its target audience. It has strong character development, talented actors, effective direction, and is topical - the central character is a pregnant teen in a middle-class home. Look out broadcast TV, because it'll be back in January.
Now about Monday night....
This past Monday in the 8 pm time slot, the second-season premiere of "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" drew 6.3 million viewers, NBC's "Deal or No Deal" 9.6 million, the CW's "Gossip Girl" 3.1 million and so on. Oh but when the broadcast numbers were totaled, there were 12.5 million viewers missing. They were watching the Green Bay Packers-Minnesota Vikings game on ESPN. Yeah, that's right, cable's ESPN drew in the most viewers.
Here's the wrinkle as we approach the last week in September. As usual, and for reasons this writer cannot fathom, the broadcast networks have a huge investment in Monday night competition. At 8 pm we'll have to choose from Fox's "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles", NBC's "Chuck", ABC's "Dancing with the Stars", CBS's "The Big Bang Theory" and "How I Met Your Mother", The CW's "Gossip Girl", or we could and apparently will, watch ESPN's "Monday Night Football."
In the 10 pm slot, in addition to the ABC, CBS, and NBC fare, TNT has added to that mix Steven Bochco's "Raising the Bar" which drew 7.7 million viewers in its premier.
Of course, because the industry media, like the government, is still in 1958 instead of 2008, we still see dutifully reported the Nielsen's overnight's for broadcast TV as if it was a meaningful picture of what's going on. In fact, the declining broadcast TV viewership is part of a bigger picture which the industry needs to see.
For all intents and purposes, The CW's Tuesday lineup of "90210" and "Privileged" next week will be in competition with ABC Family's "Lincoln Heights" and "Greek", not with Fox's "House" and "Fringe".
And the Tuesday 10 pm lineup, CBS's "Without a Trace", ABC's "Eli Stone", and NBC's "Law & Order: SVU", isn't fairly reported without the numbers on FX's "The Shield".
In other words, the viewers have discovered that ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and The CW are just five channels among 20+ meaningful nationwide programming choices, not the hundreds of local channels rapidly abandoning their last local obligation (and only viewer attraction), local news.
Yes, the show is about a mysterious conspiracy and has been compared to the X-Files. But it isn't about aliens, it is about science; particularly the odd weapons research conducted in the 1950's and 1960's and 1970's and...run amuck. Think Fort Detrick, Md., anthrax research scientist Bruce E. Ivins, but add in the fuzzy Homeland Security legal authority (oh yeah, like in the Ivins case), a super-sized ultra secret version of President Eisenhower's military-industrial complex (much like we actually have, hmmmm), a 1950's genius researcher locked up in a psychiatric unit after an accidental explosion, and so on.
Let's begin the pilot with Mulder and Scully declaring they are in love with each other and end the pilot with Mulder maybe "undead" and maybe working for "them."
Nope, that's not "The X-Files". It's better. It's us, now, with electronics for mind melds and no Spock.
Australian Anna Torv plays FBI Agent Olivia Dunham and if her performance in the pilot is any indication, she is a first class actor. We're really looking forward to watching her in upcoming episodes.
Desert Storm veteran Mark Valley, ("Boston Legal", "Swingtown") is the perfect choice to play her partner Agent John Scott. He plays the well-educated hunk perfectly. But this is more than a slightly different role the Mulder which bring us to....
Canadian born Joshua Jackson ("Dawson's Creek") as Peter Bishop, the disaffected genius con man who is conned by Dunham to help save her partner. To do that, Peter Bishop is her only access to his estranged hospitalized father....
Veteran Australian born (is there a pattern here?) actor John Noble plays Dr. Walter Bishop with his usual strong acting.
This team is managed by Homeland Security Agent Phillip Broyles ably portrayed by Lance Reddick ("The Wire") as an angry, focused investigative supervisor who already has a hate on for Dunham. Gee, Reddick is an American actor.
Rounding out this cast is veteran Blair Brown playing Nina Sharp, a cancer survivor with a creepy artificial limb and a corporate face that in no way resembles Molly Dodd.
Like all pilot's there were some weaknesses and inconsistencies. Why did she sit on the back bumper of the ambulance and snivel instead of securing the body? She knew they could talk to the dead. Oh, alright, it was critical to the show's plot.
Now if Fox were smart, they would move "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" to the Tuesday 9 p.m slot and let NBC's "Heroes" struggle with ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" and ESPN's "NFL Monday Night Football". They'd end up owning Tuesday night.
Friday, August 29, 2008
Then immediately after the speech, not having additional talking heads tell me what the speech did and/or did not accomplish, what was right or wrong about the speaker's dress or smile, etc.
Dish Network allowed me to try using my own brain to receive and analyze speeches at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) and is going to allow me the same opportunity for the Republican National Convention (RNC).
Dish has, in both high definition and standard definition, dedicated a channel to gavel to gavel audio and video of the conventions, without commentary.
The DNC without the talking empty heads providing "color" was pure enjoyment. I recorded it, of course, so I could skip the dead air times.
It did stretch my brain a little, having to consider the candidates' words with only the context I could provide. And I had to measure the sincerity using only my judgment.
But it was an enlightening experience. I also recorded some broadcast and cable network coverage. After watching that, I knew exactly why I refer to them as talking "empty" heads.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
In those few words Bochco described the malaise infecting the television industry everyone can see exists but no one seems to be attempting to cure. Perhaps it is because the cure is radical. So the American TV viewer may become the loser. It could happen as part of the digital TV "revolution."
The fact is broadcast television stations have been moribund for two decades. While one can always find examples of a quality documentary production offered somewhere around the United States, broadcast stations have a license for broadcasting 24/7, not 60 minutes every six months. If it weren't for content through seven networks - ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS, The CW and MyNetwork - it's highly likely that viewers within most of the 210 broadcast television Designated Market Areas (DMA's) would have nothing of quality or substance to watch from 6 pm to midnight.
To test this statement, take a look at what is offered in your "competitive" market on the "independent" stations. Then check out what's on the affiliated stations outside the network content show times. The Fox affiliates receive only two hours of network prime-time programming a night. Allowing for up to two hours for news related shows, that leaves two hours a night they use to offer what? Do you see 10 hours of smart, syndicated new programming? Local programming produced by groups comparable to local regional theater efforts?
In my area, the nightly lineup on the Fox affiliate looks like this:
6:00 pm News
6:30 pm Friends
7:00 pm Friends
7:30 pm Sienfeld
8:00 to 10:00 Network Programming
10:00 pm News
11:00 pm Seinfeld
11:30 pm Frasier
So, of course, what Congress did is give these folks the exclusive use of three more digital channels without reducing any of the guarantees and protections in place. What protections you may ask? There are many, but let me describe one of them.
Most viewers do not get their programming from the two main cable competitors, DirecTV and Dish Network. If they did get their service from satellites, sooner or later a logical question might cross their collective minds: "Why are the satellite TV companies expending huge sums of money to provide the bandwidth to carry local stations? Wouldn't it be better to provide for viewers to be offered an East and West feed for each of the networks like they do HBO and Showtime?"
At one time, one could get network stations from the East, from Denver, and from the West on satellite. But that came to a halt. Why? The answer is, of course, the broadcast TV lobby persuaded Congress that it was in the public interest to prevent any competition between affiliates of the same network. So Americans can no longer receive differing views of news from other regions of this huge nation.
The satellite TV situation is only one [i]symptom[/i] of the problem. The problem is that local broadcast stations are a 1950's structure created around limitations in technology at the time. They are as much as anachronism today as 1930's radio was when TV was allowed to replace it. It is now time to say goodbye to protected broadcast television stations.
"Wait a minute," you say. "Perhaps the stations in more rural areas and those owned by other than major media companies don't produce local content. But what about those in the major cities?"
There are 210 designated market areas. NBC owns outright seven stations, one of which is for sale, and is a 76% owner in two more. ABC owns 10 stations. CBS owns 14, Fox 18. They all own stations in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The original "Big Three" also own stations in San Francisco. NBC, the bellweather network, also owns a station in Dallas-Fort Worth as do CBS and Fox.
That's it. Six DMA's are worth the effort - New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Dallas-Fort Worth. And what an effort those locals put into providing local programming for their viewers.
On a typical week night between 5 pm and midnight on New York"s WNBC in addition to news and network programming, you get "Extra" and "Access Hollywood". WCBS gives you "Insider" and "Entertainment Tonight". WABC brings you "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune". WNYW Fox brings you "The Simpsons", "Seinfeld", and "TMZ" - [i]twice[/i]. These have to be potentially the most profitable stations in the country. Not one regularly schedules 30 minutes of locally produced programming on a typical week night between 5 pm and midnight other than news. This is the home of great theater. There is no shortage of proven talent. Why did these four stations receive three more channels each from the public in the digital switch? And why does the government protect to the point of giving them gifts?
And now the networks are adding insult to the injury of poor prime time programming. For instance, while expanding its TV series streaming presence on the web in direct competition with its affiliates (jointly with Fox in the case of HULU), NBC is cutting its losses by requiring its affiliate local stations to share their revenue by paying for network programming.
In summary, NBC owns the NBC broadcast stations in the largest local markets, they are competing with the affiliate local stations on the web, they are introducing new fees charged to non-owned affiliates, and they have the federal government protecting and expanding their monopolistic interest in this broadcast structure designed around 1950's technology.
If that isn't enough, for their affiliate broadcast station the networks are dumbing down programming to the cheapest and most easily controlled common denominator while experimenting on their various cable channels.
Steven Bochco's new show "Raising the Bar" will be on a cable channel, TNT. In case you've forgotten who Bochco is, here are examples of his credits:
Hill Street Blues (1981-87):
Creator (with Michael Kozoll)
Writer (54 of 146 episodes)
Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989-93):
Creator (with David E. Kelley)
Writer (51 of 97 episodes)
NYPD Blue (1993-2005):
Creator (with David Milch)
Writer (260 of 261 episodes)
In addition, in this period he was creating, producing and/or writing numerous other series. In my opinion no one in the broadcast television industry has done more in the past 30 years to keep it a meaningful source of creative writing, acting, directing and production. Only David E. Kelley, who for example has writing credits in 112 of the 112 episodes of his "Ally McBeal", is a comparable contributor to the scripted TV industry.
This coming season these two have adapted to the slow death of broadcast TV in different ways. As noted earlier, Bochco has shifted to the cable channel environment. Kelley has attempted to continue live with the broadcast networks' desire for assured success without risk by adapting a successful British show, "Life on Mars", for ABC.
So it comes down to this. A record number of Emmy nominations this year went to shows appearing on cable channels. The protected broadcast channels in prime time are showing lower risk adapted scripted shows with concepts that are a proven success with audiences in other countries. Or they are giving us low cost "reality" and game shows.
Yes, in the hours around prime time, they are giving us news. But if you have been following related news, they are rapidly reducing local news budgets.
The time has come for Congress to make some bold moves to unprotect broadcast TV stations altogether. It is time for the broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, The CW, PBS, and MyNetwork, to offer the satellite and cable companies an East and West feed like HBO, Showtime, etc.
And it is time for the newly quadrupled broadcast TV station industry to find its way into the 21st Century through creative thinking without government help.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
The Cleaner on A&EAdd to this list HBO's Generation Kill, Sundance's Shameless and Showtime's Weeds, and it is obvious you don't really need the broadcast networks even though CBS has given us Swingtown and Flashpoint with NBC contributing Fear Itself.
Mad Men on AMC
Not Going Out on BBCA
The Middleman on ABC Family
Secret Life Amer Teen on ABC Family
Rescue Me Minisode on FX
Army Wives on Lifetime
Charlie Jade on SciFi
Dr. Who on SciFi
Eureka on SciFi
Stargate Atlantis on SciFi
The Factory on Spike
Bill Engvall on TBS
My Boys on TBS
The Closer on TNT
Saving Grace on TNT
Law & Order: CI on USA
In Plain Sight on USA
Burn Notice on USA
Monk on USA
Psych on USA
Last fall I started this blog with a six part series entitled The Screen Writers Guild strike, technology, and the future of scripted television. In that series my forecast was that the future of scripted TV was not going to be in broadcast network TV for a myriad of reasons, mostly economic. If this summer's cable lineup doesn't make you agree with me, I don't know what would. The list of cable shows represents 18 hours of scripted programming, or three hours a night over six nights. Comedy and drama. Shows for every interest. No reruns. No fear of some idiot canceling a show you like after the third episode.
I find I like the direction TV is taking. Not every show is going to please the critics or win Emmy nominations. But some of these do both. And a few are even getting ratings comparable to successful fall season network shows. No, American Idol class ratings are not going to be posted for this group, but millions of folks are watching these shows.
Two facts stand out about this summer season cable lineup. First, for reasons that escape me there is a crowd on Sunday night and nothing on Wednesday. What? Nobody watches scripted TV on Wednesday? But, the second fact is that many of these shows are repeated so that you can schedule to see most of them even if you only have one TV and no DVR.
However, since you can't watch cable channels without a satellite or cable source, get a DVR with your subscription if you can afford it. Dish Network, my signal source, even has a multiple tuner DVR box that allows you to record two (or three if you can get digital TV off the air) programs in high definition while watching a recording.
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
The concepts to be portrayed are complicated. On one side we have the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP). That's the simplest side. They're the bossess, the company. The equivalent of the textile mill in Norma Rae.
Except today the American textile mills are mostly shut down and the AMPTP members are international corporations. These congolmerates are already "outsourcing" creativity by using the formats and plots of shows created in Britain or Latin America, for instance, shows that were successful with audiences there. In some cases, they are using the actual show from Canada or South Africa. And, even with shows that have American creators and writers, for years they have been "shooting" the show in Canada to save on costs. Plus, American shows now have to have "international appeal" as royalties and residuals from Italy and Japan enter into the economics of measuring success.
Further, today AMPTP represents corporate congolmerates that internationally own most of: (a) the movie production companies, (b) the TV networks (both broadcast and cable), (c) the few remaining radio networks, (d) many of the cable TV companies, (e) some of the TV consumer hardware manufacturers, (f) most of the major newspapers and magazines, and (g) many of the movie theater chains.
On the other side we have industrial unions. But they're different from the textile workers in the original Norma Rae. I'm not sure how to portray the difference here, but we have to use the "way back machine" to understand.
Once upon a time there was an organization called the American Federation of Labor (AFL) that was made up of mostly trade unions. These unions are for carpenters or electricians. They had labor halls where workers put their names on the list and employers called to get a worker.
At that time there was the Congress of Industrial Organizations. It was made up of unions that included all the workers in an industry, such as textile workers, regardless of what job they did.
The AFL and the CIO merged in 1955 to form the AFl-CIO.
The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) are two unions representing actors. They both have a history comparable to the textile workers in Norma Rae.
Headquartered in Hollywood, SAG was formed in 1933 to combat the exploitation of actors in Hollywood by the large studios that signed actors to multi-year contracts which did not include work hour or rest period provisions generally accepted in all working environments today in America. The contracts automatically renewed at the studios' discretion and allowed the studios to control the private lives of the performers. SAG is associated with the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (AAAA), which is the primary association of performer's unions in the United States. The AAAA is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
Headquartered in New York City, AFTRA is the result of a merger of the American Federation of Radio Artists (AFRA) founded in 1937 and the Television Authority (TA)created by AAAA in 1950. Historically, AFRA negotiated the first labor contracts on behalf of radio and recording artists while the negotiated the first contracts for television performers. AFTRA is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
As one might expect, performers started working in all the various media so SAG and AFTRA have a history of tense cooperation at best. Today SAG has about 120,000 members while AFTRA has about 70,000 members. However, about 44,000 performers are members of both organizations.
Let's set the time framework of our script. Its the middle of 2008. Unlike in the mid-1930's through the mid-1950's, the union members have credit cards, car loans, and home loans. Generally, they are up to their eyeballs in debt like the rest of America. Further, unlike in the mid-1930's through the mid-1950's, if they are injured or ill their medical care is dependent upon insurance derived from employment, like the rest of America. (In fact, General Electric which owns the television, movie, radio, etc. behemoth NBC Universal also is heavily involved in the credit industry and the medical industry.)
Like the mid-1930's through the mid-1950's, the entertainment industry is undergoing significant changes. In that early period, entertainment was changing from movies and general radio to broadcast television, music and talk radio, and LP records. Today the change is from television to internet digital video/cable digital video, from local radio to satellite radio, and from CD's (the successor to LP's) to individual tracks available in digital format on the internet.
Now let's add some immediate plot background.
Many in the entertainment industry believe that the labor contracts of the past 30 years did not result in workers such as rank-and-file writers and actors receiving a fair share of the industry's revenues such as cable TV and video tapes. Most recently, many think they were cheated out of a fair share of DVD revenue because the AMPTP at the time the contracts were negotiated claimed that it was too new a revenue source.
Further, one of the actors' sister unions, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), had a contract that expired nine months sooner than the SAG-AFTRA contracts which expired on the same date as the Directors Guild of America (DGA).
Add to that plot, many SAG and WGA members believe that the DGA sold out the last time by setting the miserly terms of DVD revenue sharing.
So, in the fall of 2007 the WGA began negotiating with the AMPTP. But the AMPTP refused to budge on any issue, forcing the WGA to go on strike. The AMPTP shut down all scripted movie and TV production. After a couple of months of production standstill, the DGA decided to begin negotiations six months early. They and the AMPTP quickly find a mutual basis of understanding, sign a contract, then turn to the WGA and say: "See. Any reasonable person can reach an agreement."
Several months of no work have gone by. Already some WGA members were facing home foreclosure and loss of health insurance. The electricians, carpenters and other workers (including agents) who also have had no income were angry. While SAG members have walked the picket lines with the WGA members, solidarity among workers was not strong.
And then there is the DGA. Directors as "union workers" is incongruous with the traditional concept of labor-management. At the core, a director is middle-management. It gets fuzzy when actors and writers also work as directors. But, in fact a production has producers who are clearly management and writers, actors, cinematographers, electricians, etc. who are clearly workers. Directors are middle management, the folks in charge of day-to-day production.
In any other industry, how middle management is compensated is irrelevant to the rank-and-file union worker. In earlier times in other industries the DGA would be suspected of being a "company union."
But in the entertainment industry, negotiations between managers and middle-managers determined the pattern of compensation for labor the last time and, it appears, are setting the pattern of compensation for new media such as the internet. Under pressure, the WGA capitulated, settling for the DGA pattern.
Now, let's describe two key characters to our story.
Alan Rosenberg, SAG's President, is a well-known TV and movie actor. He's been a political militant all is life. During the 'radical' 60s, he was a member of the Black Panthers and was an active protestor of the Vietnam War. He's from a show business family and is married to Marg Helgenberger, also a well-known actor. In September 2005 in a hotly contested election Rosenberg was part of a winning slate of SAG Board candidates called MembershipFirst. Rosenberg beat Morgan Fairchild and Robert Conrad to become the new President of the Screen Actors Guild. The entire contest was an argument over the need to get tough in order to guarantee stronger contracts and higher residuals. A militant union activist, Rosenberg recently stated:
"Fair play doesn't pertain in bargaining. What matters there is leverage. Here (pointing to the crowd) is the leverage. Our leverage is that we're the product. We took a bad deal for cable 25 years ago. We took a horrible deal for VHS 20 years ago. We won't be fooled again."Roberta Reardon, AFTRA President since 2007, was promoted from National Second Vice President by the AFTRA Board to fill the position vacated by a resignation. She had served two terms as AFTRA New York President from June 2003. Her performing career included daytime TV soap operas, commercials, voiceover work, industrial films, narration, and live theater. She also taught on the faculty of The School for Film and Television. In contrast to Rosenberg, she recently stated:
“AFTRA has a history of managing change. From radio to television, from broadcast to cable, from vinyl to downloads, from kinescope to video tape-and now to iPods, vPods, webisodes, and cell phones. The pace of change in technology is dizzying. AFTRA´s mission is to be responsive to those changes. The key is to ensure that professional performers have a foot in the door in the new modes of production. Our contracts will grow as those businesses grow.”While SAG and AFTRA negotiated jointly with AMPTP the last time, they split this time. AFTRA negotiators accepted a contract proposal following the pattern established by the DGA the provisions of which many describe as barely a foot in the door. In light of the different characters leading the two organizations, it is not surprising that to date SAG has refused to accept that pattern.
As of yesterday, AFTRA's membership approved the contract by a 62.4% vote of those voting. So far, no information has been released on the actual number of voters. But because it was a hotly contested vote, one could reasonably assume about an 85% turnout meaning about 65,000 votes cast of which about 24,000 were negative votes. Assuming all the "no" votes cast were from members who are also SAG members, it means that only 55% of the SAG members opposed the agreement. To get approval for a strike, Rosenberg needs a vote of 75% of his membership. At this point, its clear he can't get it without inspiring his members.
Can Rosenberg stand on tables to give inspiring speeches that will get his members to walk out? If not, how can he persuade the AMPTP negotiators to give anything more than the AFTRA contract gives performers?
In the meantime, AFTRA and SAG are competing to represent performers in media produced for the internet. AFTRA has a contract, maybe not everything actors would want, but a contract means you can work.
Can Rosenberg star as a winner in Norma Rae Moves to Hollywood? Or will Hollywood workers become the new WalMart workers, like the rest of of the American labor force? The final chapter of this script has not been written. SAG has called for continued talks after receiving AMPTP's "last, best offer." AMPTP is slowly shutting down production, effectively creating a lockout, which will put tremendous economic pressure on the workers.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) handed the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) their 42-page "last, best and final offer" yesterday.
"In short, our final offer to SAG represents a final hope for avoiding further work stoppages and getting everyone back to work,' said AMPTP in its news release.
Trying to term an industry-wide lockout as something other than what it is, the statement says: "Our industry is now in a de facto strike, with film production virtually shut down and television production now seriously threatened."
The release continues its spin: "If our industry shuts down because of the unwillingness of SAG’s Hollywood leadership to make a deal, SAG members will lose $2.5 million each and every day in wages. The other guilds and unions would lose $13.5 million each day in wages, and the California economy will be harmed at the rate of $23 million each and every day."
In its release, AMPTP argues that its offer is "a comprehensive proposal worth more than $250 million in additional compensation to SAG members, with significant economic gains and groundbreaking new media rights for all performers. In addition, our offer addresses issues that SAG identified as being of utmost concern to its members, including tailoring our new media framework for SAG in areas such as feature films and significant gains for working actors."
SAG's chief negotiator and national executive director Doug Allen said: "This offer does not appear to address some key issues important to actors. For example, the impact of forgoing residuals for all made-for-new-media productions is incalculable and would mean the beginning of the end of residuals."
But SAG leadership has taken no steps to get the 75% vote of its membership for a strike.
It's curious. Wikipeida notes: "A lockout is a work stoppage in which an employer prevents employees from working. This is different from a strike, in which employees refuse to work."
It's odd that none of the reports of the last and final offer mention a lockout for what it is but quote the AMPTP news release. Oh, that's right, the folks at AMPTP are big media.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Look out folks. Lack of any organized defender looking out for your interest is providing another opportunity for media conglomerates to pick our pockets. As with all these opportunities, things begin as internecine squabbling.
Big media has discovered "revenue distribution" problems derived from their own unregulated cross-platform ownerships. This is leading to the curious situation where a Viacom decision to make available complete episodes of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" on its Comedy Central web site and through Hulu has resulted in ruffled feathers at Time Warner Cable.
But before we explore this potential "dustup" in the biz, let's digress to refresh our memories with some background. The word "media" is the plural of "medium." In considering the singular, Dictionary.com lists 6 definitions giving context before it gets to how we use the plural (emphasis added):
- a middle state or condition; mean.
- something intermediate in nature or degree.
- an intervening substance, as air, through which a force acts or an effect is produced.
- the element that is the natural habitat of an organism.
- surrounding objects, conditions, or influences; environment.
- an intervening agency, means, or instrument by which something is conveyed or accomplished: Words are a medium of expression.
- one of the means or channels of general communication, information, or entertainment in society, as newspapers, radio, or television."
For further clarification, the "means" relate to the creative source expression which generally include the written word, audio which includes the spoken word and music, graphics and pictures, and video and movies.
In the past the "channels" (not those numbered things with call letters) included: print media such as books, magazines and newspapers; audio media such as radio, records, and compact discs; and video media such as theaters and television.
To further break it down, the "channels" for television in the past generally have included broadcast TV, cable TV, and satellite TV.
Now we have another "channel" - the internet - you know, those "pipes" that funnel into your home and office the written word, the spoken word and music, graphics and pictures, and video and movies - virtually all forms of media "means".
(It does get even fuzzier, like when your cell phone provider delivers a "wireless" signal through which you can interact with the internet and through which they can send you music and video.)
This brings us back to the Viacom - Time Warner Cable dispute. According to Wikipedia Viacom "is an American media conglomerate with various worldwide interests in cable and satellite television networks (MTV Networks and BET), and movie production and distribution (the Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks movie studios)." Until 2006, Viacom also included CBS (including over-the-air broadcasting), but the two were split.
Time Warner Inc., according to Wikipedia is "the world's second largest media and entertainment conglomerate" which includes "among its subsidiaries are AOL, New Line Cinema, Time Inc., Time Warner Cable, HBO, Turner Broadcasting System, The CW Television Network, UBU Productions, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Cartoon Network, CNN, and DC Comics." But now Time Warner Cable is being spun off which led to some interesting comments from its CEO in the Wall Street Journal about how to gain access to revenue.
What would Viacom and Time Warner Cable have to fight about over the Comedy Central web site? On the face of it, the dispute is simple. Time Warner Cable pays a subscription fee to Viacom in order to provide the Comedy Central channel to its cable TV subscribers who receive Comedy Central. If Viacom provides the most popular content from Comedy Central for free on the web, then Time Warner Cable internet customers get the content without any extra payment to Time Warner. Viacom's Comedy Central can derive ad revenue from The Daily Show web hits.
Oh my! A big potential fight. Yeah, right!
This would make sense in the abstract, but in the context of the real world the only concern here is how to get more money out of you and me.
First of all, we do not get the option of paying or not paying for Comedy Central. Cable TV is not a la carte. When we subscribe to the cable (or satellite) TV package that includes Comedy Central, we are forced to buy a group of channels most of which any one individual won't watch, though collectively we as small groups of viewers do watch. Viacom and Time Warner as cable channel providers insist on this - depending upon your social philosophy - "ripoff approach" or "access assurance approach." It makes them the most money.
Second, Time Warner subsidiaries have web sites that provide streaming content of current and past TV shows. Check out The CW Web Site or the new The WB.com. Are these Time Warner subsidiaries being assaulted in the press by Time Warner Cable executives? Not that I've seen.
So let's back up here a minute. In a Teddy Roosevelt "trust busting" world or a Franklin Roosevelt regulated utility world, we would have a regulated cable company that couldn't be in the media content production business. It would derive it's revenues from providing (a) cable TV signals for monthly subscription fees paid by you and me, (b) access to the internet for monthly service charges paid by you and me, and (c) telephonic communications services for monthly service charges paid by you and me. Their competition would be the regulated land-line phone companies, regulated satellite companies, and regulated "wireless" companies. These would be technology companies not in any way involved in TV channels nor media production.
Because the world isn't like this, Liberty Media Corporation which is in the cable TV business also owns DirecTV which is a satellite TV company and also owns cable TV channels and also is in media production. It's hardly the most obvious conglomerate which is why I used it as an example.
Let's look at a different example. In it's own effort to survive, Comcast which is a cable company previously only in the cable TV, internet service, and phone service businesses, is now delivering content through its own web site Fancast.com through which it delivers content from its partner Hulu (NBC Universal, New Corp. and now Viacom) supported by advertising. But Comcast issued a news release May 19 headed
Fancast.com to Stream Additional Programming from MTV Networks and BET Networks, Including COMEDY CENTRAL's "South Park," "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" & "The Colbert Report"
Back to the real world. Time Warner Cable are the nice folks that on June 5 began testing its internet service pay-for-what-you-use system in Beaumont, TX. Subscription tiers are being offered that will range from $29.95 a month for relatively slow service at 768 kilobits per second and a 5-gigabyte monthly cap to $54.90 per month for fast downloads at 15 megabits per second and a 40-gigabyte cap, with overages being charged at $1 per gigabyte. Downloads and uploads will count toward the monthly cap and prices cover the internet portion of bundles that include tv and/or phone service. Remember, until this year it was the cable company of the Time Warner conglomerate. That conglomerate owns AOL which uses its own partnership with Hulu to promote itself. And if Time Warner Cable viewers get hooked on sites like Hulu or its partners, then the cable system capacity starts getting stretched. But with the tier system, it will become very profitable. But if it starts promoting Hulu-like use before it gets the tiered rates up and running nationwide, people might start getting testy about these speed and gigabyte limits.
So here's the big picture right now all you viewers out there. The media biz conglomerates are struggling a bit to be properly organized to get their hands on your money. And there is nothing new about how they are doing it.
The basic source, of course, is advertising (think newspapers and magazines) the cost of which is included in the price you pay for the products advertised. The other source is monthly charges - starting with newspaper and magazine subscriptions plus phone service and now for cable TV and internet service. Even pay-per-view is really a variation on buying one issue of a newspaper or magazine at the news stand.
I guess I have to figure out how to get in on this, or at least how to pay the least for the most.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
I guess we lose sight of why there are Nielsen ratings at all?
Nielsens are used to sell advertising. Remember you, the viewer, don't pay anything to watch OTA networks. So to cover the cost of buying the show, owning and operating a TV broadcast network, and owning and operating a TV station, advertising is sold.
The networks recently went through the "upfronts" for the new season, which means that they sold ads slots upfront. The most "valuable" slots are primetime Sunday through Thursday, other than special events. The problem is the broadcast networks are in trouble. To sell ads, they used to have to convince advertisers that someone watched the show. Now, with the advent of DVR's, the focus is on whether someone watches the ads.
When you hear "Jericho is brought to you by Frisbee" that is literally the truth of the matter. "Frisbee" is paying all the basic costs based upon the premise that someone is watching the ads and will buy a "Frisbee." The only evidence they have that anyone watched is the Nielsens or data from another source.
Consider this. Typically Jericho in its first season had average ratings between 20% to 25% of American Idol. Jericho probably cost double per minute to create. If nearing the end of the first season CBS said to Paramount Network Television we can generate enough revenue to pay you 20% of your production costs, the Paramount folks have to consider: "Will we be able to generate enough revenue through DVD sales and syndication recover our money and make a profit?" As you now know, the answer was "no."
Consider Friends. Any half hour show shot on a set is cheap to produce except for stars salaries which initially weren't out of the ordinary. During the last season, members of the cast were getting 7 figures per episode. How could a network cover those costs with ad sales in a 30-minute show? American viewers of episodes during all seasons were huge: 25 million, plus or minus. Buying a 30-second spot was an expensive buy.
But NBC didn't pay all the costs incurred by Warner Brothers Television for the last season of Friends. Syndication revenues worldwide for the show were huge. Even in America we started seeing episodes from early years in syndication while the last few seasons were being produced. And syndication is still hauling in the dough. DVD's were released to big sales and rereleased for continuing sales and released in box sets.
It's all about the money. Nielsens? Advertisers (you remember, the folks who bring you the show) now want second-by-second info from boxes. They want to know if you watched the ad, not the show. The show is irrelevant. If a show gets 6 million live and a 7-day 40 million DVR viewing, the assumption is likely to be that it had a live equivalent advertising influence of 7 million, maybe. We time shifters are killing OTA TV.
Those of us who prefer scripted TV have to start hoping that the average per-episode production budget for scripted shows get realistic. At the outset they need to be budgeted for cable-level Nielsens on USA, ABCFamily, Fx, or SciFi, assuming some potential for syndication and moderate DVD sales.
Yes, we watched Jericho. We'll never watch it in syndication as we saw all the episodes. We'll never buy the DVD's. And we didn't even buy some peanuts to send to CBS.
If there is a Nielsen household representative of ours, the fact is sometime within the week they appeared we watched Jericho and the shows opposite it. Our representative households skipped the ads on all of them if they did what we did. So if all those shows get canceled it's the fault of we viewers.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
Last fall when AMPTP effectively engaged in a lockout of actors, directors, and all others by forcing WGA members into a strike, an effective countermove would have been for SAG members to state they were negotiating their new contract as of November 1, 2007, and walk out in sympathy and solidarity. That's what the labor movement is all about. And then, the two striking unions could have ignored the efforts of the middle management non-union association, the Directors Guild.
Rosenberg is representing the needs of "the rank and file", not the likes of Tom Cruise or even Kyra Sedgwick.
SAG should represent the people struggling to get enough work as the "interviewed gawker on the sidewalk" on the CSI or Law & Order franchises. These are the people whose current income could derive in a small way from DVD revenue perhaps such as Meilinda Soerjoko and Lindsey Ginter who appeared in respectively three and two episodes of Lost. These are the people who need health insurance, for instance. Like the rest of us.
They have joined the WalMart workers of the entertainment industry, which includes all those in crafts and trades except the stars. And they all are going to lose ground. So will we.
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Big media (AMPTP) during its talks with the Writers Guild used the lockout effectively to break the Writers Guild and scare middle management, the Directors Guild. (Yes, Virginia, directors are middle management not rank and file.)
Big media corporations now are using the threat of lockout against the actors, thereby threatening all members of all the unions they deal with who already lost at least three months of work in the past six months during the Writers Guild lockout.
At the same time, big media is going to negotiate with AFTRA, the other actor white meat. They know AFTRA's goal is to expand its influence in prime time. So watch AMPTP throw AFTRA a meatless bone to get a settlement. This will leave SAG's militant leaders hanging because its membership like the rest of us can't afford to miss any payments. ("Militant" in this context means trying to avoid "WalMart employee" status for its non-superstar members.)
Even in Hollywood which produced Norma Rae, the union workers don't understand the lockout or threat of a lockout as simply an old, well-worn corporate management "union-busting" tool to counter the threat of a strike.
But a benefit (?) accrues to us viewers. The fall TV season and the internet media expansion will go on as now planned by Disney, NBCUniversal, CBS, Viacom, and News Corp. It's a good time to buy several million dollars of stock in these companies for the long term. Now what did I do with my "$5 Million Rainy Day" savings account passbook...?
Monday, April 28, 2008
Take all the fools out of this world and there wouldn't be any...profit. - Josh Billings
As the major players in TV reposition themselves to generate significant new revenue on the web and through premium cable, those who discovered they are out of touch with reality are sad to watch.
Of course, executives at The CW come to mind instantly as they are so the obvious. In a curious, albeit totally foolish, move to shore up its broadcast TV ratings, this struggling network decided to discontinue streaming new episodes of "Gossip Girl" from its web site. Of course, this show's audience is the demographic that's on the web more than they are watching TV live.
Then there are the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) members along with the directors, actors and supporting trade union members. As Disney, NBCU, and News Corp., not to mention Viacom, MGM and WB, realign their positions towards web and premium channel revenue, the labor that goes into the productions has effectively lost its chance for a fair share of the wealth.
The production employees are the new WalMart employees struggling to even just keep their insurance. The writers, the directors and the actors are already members of the new middle management/semi-professional class of employees that pass through the revolving door of constantly reorganizing companies and who will be getting a smaller and smaller piece of the pie.
As a side note, the Association of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) members discovered a few years ago that they didn't need expensive stars on TV shows. It's still unclear if the former and would-be TV stars themselves have figured this out.
And the industry has discovered "outsourcing." Canadian, British and Australian shows will appear more frequently on American television either directly or indirectly, the latter being the already proliferating copies of shows created elsewhere. It will not be long before things like CGI and post-production work will be routinely done in Asia.
As I warned in this blog in December (see The Slow "Lockout" of Actors and Directors), the AMPTP members have a plan. All labor unions having contracts with AMPTP members should have walked out with the writers and not come back until the AMPTP members agreed to deals (1) fairly sharing all revenues and (2) producing most American TV content entirely in this country. They didn't act with solidarity and they have lost.
Those "militant" SAG leaders (meaning those few who know labor is losing big time) negotiating with AMPTP now know it's all over but getting whatever bone AMPTP may offer to allow them to save face. It wouldn't surprise me if that bone didn't relate to sharing DVD revenue, that revenue recently having declined substantially.
By the way, you taxpayers out there, state and local governments are now giving potential tax revenue back to the AMPTP members to entice them to come to your town. While that won't affect many communities, some of you will join labor as losers in the TV industry realignment.
On the other hand, those nostalgic for old TV shows are the big winners in the new realignment once they figure out how to watch streaming TV on the web.