Tactics: Be as funny as possible. Not that that’s saying much.

3 January 2008

Tactics, or, An academic exercise in what I would advise other people to do in order to get what they want.

Humor as a tactic has long served a particular purpose in public life. Is there anything as hard to deflect as a well-placed bit of satire? This is only one recent example. Look at the expression on Hillary Clinton’s face when she realized she’d set herself up for that one. This is something that late-night hosts are doing, declaring their solidarity with striking writers.

But for striking WGA writers, humor might also serve another purpose, which has less to do with making fools of production companies and instead, as a good tactic ought to, provides some strategic leverage toward beating them. To start with, here’s a passage from the great Saul Alinsky, from Rules for Radicals.

John L. Lewis, the leader of the C.I.O., told me that at the height of this sit-down strike [against Chevrolet] he heard a rumor that General Motors had met with both Ford and Chrystler, [saying, “If] the C.I.O. beats us, then you’re next in line and there will be no stopping them. Now we are willing to let the C.I.O. sit in at Chevrolet until hell freezes and suffer the loss in our profits if you will hold your production of [competing vehicles]. On the other hand, we can’s hold out against the C.I.O. if you boost production in order to sell to all the potential Chevrolet customers who will buy your products because they can’t get Chevrolets.

…It doesn’t matter whether this is a false rumor or true, [said Lewis], because neither Ford not Chrysler would ever overlook an opportunity for an immediate increase in their profits and power, shortsighted as it might be.

The internecine struggle among the Haves for their individual self-interest is as shortsighted as internecine struggle among the Have-Nots. …I could persuade a millionaire on a Friday to subsidize a revolution for Saturday out of which he would make a huge profit on Sunday even though he was certain to be executed on Monday.

So it was smart of the WGA to make a deal with Worldwide Pants, Inc., which makes the Late Show with David Letterman and Craig Ferguson’s program which follows. Functionally, this puts CBS at an advantage relative to the other networks, since those programs air on CBS’s affiliates. But it defeats the purpose of the tactic if Letterman and Fergusonbattl[e] for second place,” not wanting to be seen “profit[ing] from the walk-out.” If there’s no ratings advantage to be had by having union writers at work, why should production companies and networks make a deal?

With that in mind, here’s an idea for striking writers: You have all these funny, talented folks out on picket lines striking, right? Put all of them to work writing jokes for David Letterman and Craig Ferguson. Or at least all the funny ones. The rest of them, of whom there are many, can continue to picket. The idea here is to give Letterman a huge ratings advantage, to the point where NBC (the main late-night competitor) is forced to make a deal.

Why would that force them to make a deal? Because late night is the only profitable unit at NBC television right now. If it stops being profitable then it’s not even worth it for GE to own a television network. (In other social and political senses, of course, it’s worth owning. But companies, in the end, are responsible to shareholders who would just as soon lose unprofitable divisions, whatever their political or social importance.)

In a similar vein, the SAG, which is not crossing picket lines in solidarity with WGA strikers, should bring out every high-ratings big-name celebrity it can find, and give Letterman and Ferguson the biggest boost they can. The biggest music acts should do the same. If Leno, O’Brien, Stewart, and Colbert want their writers back, they should tell their viewers, on the air, to tune into Letterman and Ferguson instead. They should say it every night until they win the strike.

And everyone – the WGA, the SAG, and everyone else – should make a big, public deal of it. I don’t know if other contractual obligations prevent something like this from actually occurring. But it would sure put a lot of pressure on the other networks, by punishing those who don’t agree to the union’s terms, and by explicitly rewarding those who do.

(Disclaimer: This is not to say that I’m a gung-ho pro-WGA guy, though I do instinctively want to fall more on the union side than on the Big Bad Business side. The whole fun of speculating on tactics is independent of who’s side, if any, I’m on.)


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