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Why is this strike not over?

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WGA Strike 2007
Ric Francis/AP

Why is this strike not over?

The writers’ strike could be settled in three days.

As it drags into its third month, as more of Hollywood’s rank and file begin to lose their jobs, as the negotiating table gathers dust, and as we are asked to participate in the fiction that this has all come down to whether Jay Leno is allowed to write his own monologue and whether the Golden Globes are going to be on TV, it’s important to remember:

The writers’ strike could be settled in three days.

It could be, but it won’t be. And the reason is that the men who run the studios and networks are once again falling prey to an affliction that too often defines them: They would rather win than think.

At the beginning of the WGA strike, we heard a good deal of corporate grandstanding about how the studios’ hard line against paying writers a tiny percentage of residuals for DVDs and new media derived from their profound sense of fiscal responsibility. Giving writers what they deserved would destroy the industry, went the argument. Or something like that.

It’s all a little blurry now, because it’s no longer a case the producers’ alliance is bothering to make. They can’t, because we now know that the total additional revenue the writers want probably adds up to less per year than the money that New Line incinerated to make The Golden Compass. And the moment that this bunch of corporate titans hired a $100,000-a-month PR firm to explain to the world that writers are greedy, they moved from the reality-based community to the land of Lewis Carroll. Now that they have nothing to say, the studio chiefs huddle quietly behind their chosen negotiator, Nick Counter, who is currently doing an exemplary job of not negotiating. Presumably, he’s earning his place as chief strategist by telling the CEOs to ”hang tough,” a message that appeals to their desire to be seen as street fighters who can play hardball, not (as is more often true) the bright, nerdy kids with asthma who always got picked last for the team and don’t recognize that power has turned them into bullies.

For the moguls whose calculated intractability has already destroyed half a television season, allowed the movie business to grind to a halt, and put a lot of people without huge resources (and I’m not talking about writers) out of work, this clearly isn’t about the money anymore. It’s about winning. Why is winning so important to these guys? Perhaps because they all run businesses in which winning is so damn hard to measure. Who has the biggest market share? Doesn’t matter, because it’s what you spend that makes the difference. Who has the No. 1 movie of the weekend? Ditto. Who won the latest sweeps period? Nobody cares, since Madison Avenue doesn’t take sweeps seriously anymore. Who’s got the biggest…well, it’d take these guys a month of posturing and bickering before they could even agree on whose ruler to use.

But if they can break a union’s will — if they can make the writers come crawling back to the table with their tails between their legs and their list of demands for fair treatment demolished — that’s a win. And more than a win, it’s a way to express all the contempt and disgust that comes with running a gigantic company and still having to spend your days kissing up to highly paid actors, directors, and writers who sometimes give you flops anyway. If the studios and networks win the war they’ve created, their victory will be certified with a sneer: Even when we go back to business as usual, remember that this is what we really think of you.

NEXT PAGE: Why knocking the Golden Globes off TV is a self-defeating move that sacrifices a potential big win for a guaranteed small one

I’m sure the small handful of powerhouses behind the producers’ alliance didn’t like it when David Letterman called them ”cowards, cutthroats, and weasels”; I’m sure they’d rather think of themselves as guys who are willing to make the tough decisions. But they haven’t done that; they have instead taken the easiest way out. Does anyone who runs a network or a studio have the guts, right now, to speak up — to say this has gone on too long already, and cost everyone too much, and we all know that if we check our egos, a fair settlement is within relatively easy reach? Or are they just going to march into 2008 as they ended 2007 — by trying to starve out a union while telling themselves that they’re politically progressive because they wrote a check to Barack Obama? (Lest you think this is partisan, by the way, even Mike Huckabee has announced that he supports the writers against the producers. Too bad he didn’t figure that out before crossing the picket line.)

In recent weeks, the writers have drifted badly off message, a problem that, coupled with the AMPTP’s breathtakingly brazen display of bad faith, helped derail the last round of negotiations. Someone in the WGA leadership has clearly gotten the idea that you fight toughness with toughness. Wrong. When the other side has brute strength on its side, you fight toughness with persistence and solidarity. You don’t dilute your key points with a dozen incidental squabbles about late-night and rumblings about who gets custody of reality-show writers and whatever else got thrown onto the bottom of the something-for-everybody Congressional-appropriations bill that was the WGA’s original wish list. When the strike started, WGA members (full disclosure: I’m married to one) used their pickets, blogs, videos, and voices to keep the focus on the one issue that is absolutely central to this strike: fair compensation in all forms of revenue-generating media. And that’s why a strong majority of the American public supports them, whereas the producers, according to polls, are about as popular as dog fighting and human papillomavirus. But the recent fight over late-night shows (Letterman and Ferguson good! Leno and Kimmel bad! Carson Daly superbad!) is a sideshow distraction that allows too many people to imagine that this boils down to whose monologue is funnier. And those ”Why We Write” blogs? Nice, but this strike isn’t about the right to write — it’s about the right to get paid.

And knocking the Golden Globes off TV is a self-defeating move that sacrifices a potential big win for a guaranteed small one. Yes, it demonstrates that, with a major assist from the Screen Actors Guild, the writers can outmuscle the producers on the silliest possible battlefield. And yes, SAG’s solidarity with the WGA has been impressive. But if the WGA had announced that it had no problem with actors going to pick up their little round trophies, there’s a great possibility that one popular performer after another would stand up and urge the studios and networks to treat the writers fairly and make a deal — and 20 million people at home would hear that message. A very public shaming from within Hollywood’s creative community would have been a spectacular PR weapon. The WGA tossed it away, and they may try to do the same thing with the Oscars, a decision that, as The New York Times‘ David Carr has astutely pointed out, amounts to little more than ”picking a fight with many of their natural allies.” This is too much noise and effort put into something that’s the equivalent of the Wyoming caucus when writers should be shouting the same message every single day: Pay us fairly.

It’s a pretty simple idea. And it’s a very reasonable request. But as Hollywood’s working class begins to struggle in earnest, to deplete its savings and worry about mortgages and college funds, will any of the men in charge listen? Are any of them willing to stop fighting so hard to look like winners, and to start behaving like leaders?

If so, they really should speak up now. Because, to paraphrase John Lennon, war is over if they want it. The writers’ strike could be settled in three days.

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