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1000 Monkeys

This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

People in Hollywood tend to give extravagant gifts, so I wasn't surprised, a few years ago, when a smartly-dressed messenger delivered a heavy gold-wrapped package to my door.

It was from the president of a studio, and he was thanking me for helping out during the difficult production week of a television pilot. What he sent was a digital video recorder -- specifically, a TiVo thingy -- and I set it up immediately, eager to start recording my favorite shows, watching them when I wanted, and zapping briskly through the irritating commercials. And it's here that the story gets complicated.

See, for the past fifteen years I've made a living here in Hollywood -- and a pretty nice one, too, thanks -- as a writer and producer of television comedy. My house, my car, my clothes, my vacations -- everything I have now and everything I hope to have in the future -- are all pretty much directly tied into television advertising revenue. It took a week or so of joyfully playing with my TiVo before I realized that I wasn't so much fast-forwarding through the ads as I was fast-forwarding myself into personal bankruptcy. I wasn't zapping commercials. I was zapping my paycheck.

Talk about a weird gift! When you think about it, a studio executive giving out TiVo devices is a little bit like the Pope handing out copies of the Bhagavad Gita -- sort of, shall we say, not in his best interests.

It gets worse. A simple suite of software tools -- Final Cut Pro for video editing and Pro Tools for music -- means that anyone with a decent digital movie camera (and that's starting to be a pretty big number) can make a professional-looking and sounding movie without too much technical expertise. And if that person also has access to the Internet (and that's already a very big number) then he can just, well, broadcast it to the world. Like ABC. And Bravo.

Most of it is going to be pretty lousy stuff. (At least, that's what we in Hollywood keep telling ourselves.) But if you subscribe to the theory that one thousand monkeys with one thousand typewriters will eventually produce some pretty great work, what happens if it's one million monkeys with one million Panasonic AG-DVX100 24P digital movie cameras? And what if they aren't monkeys, but inventive, funny teenagers or passionate amateurs or closet Coppolas? Is it getting hot in here? Suddenly I'm not feeling too well.

These days, the fantasy of Hollywood as a special place filled with special people with special skills is one only people who live and work here believe in. As we glide around town in our BMW's, purring gently into our cell phones, it scarcely occurs to us that with broadband internet and its infinitely-expandable choices rapidly competing with -- and in some demographics, actually beating -- what's on television, with advertising revenue being whittled and sliced into ever tinier morsels, and with advancements in technology enabling anyone to shoot, edit, and score a full-length digital movie on an Apple G4 PowerBook, there's no reason why somebody in, say, Chicago, or Baltimore, or Beijing for that matter, can't compete seamlessly with NBC. And if you've ever seen an episode of Joey,- I think you'll agree that the smart money is on the out-of-towners.

It's impossible, of course, due to the Botox injections and the eye-lifts, to know for sure if anyone else in the 310 area code is alarmed by these developments. And to be fair, there are still fat years in Hollywood's future. But as outside competition zooms up, bloated paychecks like mine will naturally slim down. And when that happens, all of the ancillary money pits around town -- the personal trainers and the yoga gurus and the lipo guys and the botox drive-throughs and the Mercedes pimpifyers and the $600-lunch sushi-masters -- are all going to face what economists euphemize as &quotdownward; pricing pressure."

For most people in Hollywood, like me, there is a fate worse than unemployment. It's having actually to work hard, in a results-based environment. But that's the trouble with free-market capitalism: eventually, at the end of the day, you actually have to earn your paycheck. And there's no way to fast-forward through that. Is there?

Well, that's it for this week. Next week, we'll quit the business. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.

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