(Roughly) Daily

“Television is now so desperately hungry for material that they’re scraping the top of the barrel”*…

The television industry, in its new streaming-led form, is in turmoil. The companies that control it are slashing their available libraries and “reorganizing” their operations, leading to layoffs throughout the industry, and writers are on strike. To some extent, these are consequences of the years of deficit-funded efforts to grab subscribers coming home to roost. But as Max Read argues, there is a deeper problem: the people making our entertainment don’t like it…

[David] Zaslav is this cycle’s big Hollywood villain, most famous for burying completed but unreleased movies for tax write-offs and removing shows from their streaming platforms to save money. When “Max,” the new streaming service that combined all of WBD’s streaming apps into a single offering, was released in May, its interface credited directors and producers together under the hilariously dismissive heading “Creators,” which was both a blatant violation of bargaining agreements around credits and an on-the-nose suggestion that the WBD people simply couldn’t be bothered to care what a “director” is or what one does.

But he is hardly the only person in Hollywood who seems to have more contempt than love for what the industry does. This excellent Vulture piece about the state of streaming by Lane Brown and Joseph Adalian has been rattling around in my head all week, specifically this quote:

One high-level agent says that studios regard the WGA’s demands — for higher minimum pay and staffing requirements, among other things — as simply incompatible with the way TV is now made: “The Writers Guild, delusionally, is harkening back to a day when there were 25 episodes of Nash Bridges a year and repeats and residuals. Back-end payments existed because Europeans were willing to watch our garbage, and Americans were willing to watch repeats of that garbage on cable at 11 at night. The real issue is that the medium changed. Instead of getting a job as a staff writer on CSI: Miami for 46 weeks a year, now it’s a 25-week job working on Wednesday, which is a better show. That’s just progress.”

This begins as a relatively lucid description of why back-end payments existed and then becomes a bizarre fantasy in which, for some strange reason, writers are now obligated to trade stable and remunerative employment for a vague sense of creative fulfillment and prestige, and this trade is called “progress.”…

I don’t meant to make one agent’s offhand quotes to Vulture emblematic of an entire industry, and I know there are many people in Hollywood who would disagree. But the contempt on display for (1) the product being produced, (2) the people who make that product, and (3) the people who consume that product is, I think, widely shared–look at Zaslav, HBO, and TCM. That contempt is nothing new in the entertainment industry, of course. But as it grows and develops it has increasingly made the people in charge unable to distinguish between good product and bad product.

The agent here is committing the same mistake as a lot of bad critics and even more bad development executives, which is to think of “prestige” as a desirable marker of quality, instead of as a kind of genre, or, more cynically, a set of narrative and aesthetic tropes (antiheroes, serialized narratives, film-like cinematography) designed to appeal to a particular marketing demographic–one that happens to be a target demographic for subscription streaming services. As the Vulture piece goes on to point out, just because something is eight episodes long and “actually about trauma” doesn’t automatically make it good, let alone popular…

The agent describes the old residuals system like this: “Back-end payments existed because Europeans were willing to watch our garbage, and Americans were willing to watch repeats of that garbage on cable at 11 at night.” The idea is that people are no longer willing to watch “garbage,” presumably because so many more options are available to them. But this is only a satisfying answer if you assume that “garbage” is automatically bad. What if the problem is that we’re not really making much good garbage anymore?…

You don’t even have to watch the garbage to appreciate its role in the creative ecosystem. The Shield creator Shawn Ryan, who’s quoted in the story above, was a Nash Bridges writer; so too was Watchmen and The Leftovers creator Damon Lindelof. I’m not the first person to make this point, but the entire first generation of “prestige TV” in the 2000s–which is to say, 90 percent of the actually good prestige TV–was written by people who’d spent a lot of time learning to write quickly to a tight structure for a big audience, a set of skills no longer as widespread among writers, to dire consequences for audiences, who have essentially traded consistent, engaging entertainment for the convenience of on-demand streaming.

Networks used to create several Honda Civic shows a year (and, yes, a lot of lemons); these days, if I can stretch this metaphor past the breaking point, streaming platforms seem to mostly create Tesla Model 3s, which is to say expensive, technologically interesting products that gesture at luxury and quality but tend to fall apart quickly and rely almost entirely on hype and conspicuous consumption (not to mention labor exploitation!) to make themselves profitable–and then only after years of burning cash in pursuit of a business model…

Is the problem really that streamers (or writers) are too focused on “prestige” at the expense of “populist” “garbage”? Netflix, the biggest streamer of all, produces mind-boggling amounts of middlebrow and trash TV; every time I open the app there’s a new reality competition between friendship bracelet makers or whatever.

There are many, many cultural and technological reasons for the various (and often overstated) malaises of the streaming era, and there’s no one weird trick for the industry to fix itself. But it’s hard not to notice that, from a labor perspective, the big difference between the era of West Wing and Ally McBeal and now is not so much that writers and directors and actors are too pretentious for lady-lawyer shows but that back then seasons lasted for 20+ episodes, paid more people, promised more consistency (to audiences and to workers above and below the line), and underwent more development. Streamers seem happy to make middlebrow TV; but they also seem unable or unwilling to consistently make good middlebrow TV–by paying enough people, building enough institutional knowledge, committing enough resources, and marketing the product.

You hear sometimes a call from writers or directors or other creatives for studios and streamers to take more risks and get more creative. But I don’t really think the problem of bad TV in the streaming era is an issue of “creativity” (versus conservatism) or “risk” (versus safety) so much as it is an issue of professionalism (versus saying “yes” to 1,000 shows at once, under-developing them, and then killing them en masse for no clear reason). Maybe the reason writers and directors and other creatives are treating TV “like art” instead of like “a job” is because none of the people who hire them are treating it like a job either!

If you do not like movies and TV you cannot make good movies and TV: “Why do entertainment executives hate entertainment?” from @readmaxread in his ever-illuminating newsletter, Read Max. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Gore Vidal


As we change the channel, we might recall that it was on this date in 1977 that Elvis performed his last concert at Indianapolis’ Market Square Arena.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 26, 2023 at 1:00 am

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