This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
I was joking around with a friend of mine -– a fellow writer on strike -- a few days ago. He hurt his leg a week or so ago, so I sent him a text message. "Hey, haven't seen you on the picket line. Hope your leg is okay, and it didn't SCAB over." And I put "scab" in all caps. I was kidding, of course.
But a few seconds later, my phone rang. "What, what, what was that all about?" my friend asked nervously. "Are you hearing things? What are you hearing?"
He was really nervous. See, it turns out that there was this rumor going around that my friend had been spotted driving onto a studio lot. Crossing the line. Someone thought they saw him, told someone else, and before you know it, he was getting angry, accusing calls from fellow writers, and even, he told me, a WGA official.
Of course, the rumor was all wrong. My friend was at home, nursing his hurt leg. It was a case of mistaken identity. But he was furious and panicked. "I would never cross the picket line! I would never be a scab. How could this happen? How could they mistake me for someone else?"
"Well," I said, trying to be diplomatic, "Yeah, I mean, you're so distinctive looking. Looks-wise, you really stand out in the entertainment industry. Being, um…a bald Jewish guy in his late 40's, who drives a Volvo."
"With a kid's car seat in back," he added, getting the point.
If this thing lasts a while, we're all going to have to be very very careful with the accusations and the rumors.
Which brings me to the question that people keep asking me. "How long is this writers thing going to last?"
Well, I'm not sure. My gut tells me June. But I keep hearing that the studios can't afford to skip pilot season, which begins in January. You see, the key for the TV business is the "up-fronts" –- that's in May, when the networks unveil their fall season schedules and showcase their best pilots, getting advertisers to pony up a lot of cash "upfront." A lot of cash. Over one billion dollars. The system doesn't make a lot of sense –- the advertisers hate it; they always end up paying more than they should for shows that do far worse than promised -– but the networks, of course, love it. Who doesn't love getting paid upfront, five or six months early?
But up-fronts require pilots, which require a pilot season. Which begins in earnest in January. No network can afford to have the up-fronts go away, because if they don't have up-fronts in 2008, they'll never have them again, which means a lot of the current value of a broadcast network evaporates. CBS and NBC and FBC and ABC suddenly become valued at roughly the level of a basic cable station.
So how long does this thing go on? My head tells me January. It ends in time for pilot season. We thread the needle on streaming video payments, agree to spend the next two years coming up with a replacement for the residual system, top off the health and pension funds, put away the red t-shirts, and everybody goes back to work early enough to pay off their December AMEX bill.
That's what my head tells me. My gut tells me June. Because to settle this thing, both sides -– the producers and the writers -- are going to have to get practical and realistic. And, frankly, I have to admit, one side spends all day staring into space, daydreaming, coming up with elaborate fantasies, with no real understanding money or finance or business. And on the other side are the writers.
Well, that's it for this week. Next week, we'll eat three bean salad. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.
Photo: Deverill Weekes