Writers’ Strike: Why Is It Dragging On?


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.