Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Striking Out: The Writers' Guild of America and The Mary Tyler Moore Show

The pandemic introduced me to the pleasures of vegging out on the couch most evenings to watch the best in television. It’s allowed me to catch up, belatedly, on now-classic series like Breaking Bad and newer ones like Inventing Anna. But at times I’m looking for something nostalgic and easy on the eyes. Often the passage of time creates a disconnect: my once-beloved Carol Burnett Show seems to me now a bit grotesquely out of date, though its classic movie parodies still give me a chuckle. Still, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) is an amiable, and sometimes hilarious, way to spend 30 minutes with some deeply flawed but lovable characters.

 I think of this show, about a single gal working for a Minneapolis TV news station, as pretty much pure escapism. But a second-season episode (one of the funniest I can recall) reminded me of issues that are in the news right now. It’s all about fallout from a writers’ strike, which briefly decimates the newsroom in which Mary is the Gal Friday to curmudgeonly Lou Grant (Edward Asner). Mary and Lou are officially Management, so they must stay behind when their show’s news writers walk off the job and join the picket lines. Doofus announcer Ted Knight (as Ted Baxter) is dumbfounded by all the issues involved, but his performers’ union requires him to leave too. So Lou and Mary are put in the position of trying both to write the news copy and present it on air. It doesn’t work: Mary’s attempt to put a bit of drama into a weather story is ridiculously ill-considered, and Lou – as on-air presenter – turns out to have a galloping case of stage fright that only a lot of scotch will cure. Fortunately the strike only lasts two days, and everyone lives happily ever after.

 Too bad things don’t end so neatly in the real world. Members of the Writers’ Guild of America (who work in both film and television) are now on strike for real, desperate to improve their take-home pay in an era when TV is dominated by streaming services. In contrast to the big TV networks of old, Netflix and the other streamers notoriously pay only modest wages to staff writers. Nor do they offer the healthy residuals on which writers have long counted as a way to shore up a middle-class lifestyle.

 It doesn’t stop there. As aggrieved writers are quick to point out, studios won’t even discuss another elephant in the room: the advent of ChatGPT as a threat to the writing profession. We all know that writing for movies and TV often tends to rely on well-known formulas. As pointed out in a recent report in The Hollywood Reporter, what’s to stop studio heads from turning to Artificial Intelligence to plan new episodes of old shows?  Said Amy Webb, founder and CEO of something called the Future Today Institute, a long-running procedural like Law & Order could easily make use of ChatGPT for plotting out episodes, then bring in a human writer only to shape and polish. It’s a possibility that WGA members are desperate to hash out with Management, but Management won’t commit.

 As a teacher of screenwriting I know how many “civilians” are out there, hoping to make it as writers in Hollywood. But Hollywood professionals know how easy it is to get cheated out of a living wage.  My former boss Roger Corman would habitually ask an office drone to throw together a first draft over a weekend, then pay a professional only for a rewrite. Have things changed so very much?


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