Wednesday, January 09, 2008

An Even Less Perfect Union

I finally got to sit down tonight and watch Monday's edition of the Tonight Show; I tape it every Monday for the Headlines feature, and this was the first show I'd gotten to see since it returned without its striking writers last week.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I'm no fan of unions in general, and that negative feeling is intensified whenever the unionized workers are members of a profession: my fellow teachers and musicians come to mind, as do the screenwriters being discussed here. Former DMN columnist Ruben Navarrette, now in San Diego, notes that Leno has been put in an extremely awkward position by the strike:
The Writers Guild is right that its members deserve a fair share of profits generated by television scripts they produce, especially since the networks will cash in for years through DVDs and other distribution means that haven't even been dreamed up.

But the guild is wrong in its tactics. For instance, the union has vowed to discipline one of its own, late-night star Jay Leno. According to the strike rules, guild members cannot write material for any company affected by the strike, even if the material is intended for the member's own use.

In recent installments of NBC's The Tonight Show, Mr. Leno has begun to write his own comedy monologue. Not that he has much of a choice. The show's 19 writers may be on strike, but the network declared that the show must go on.

The sticky part is that Mr. Leno is also listed as a writer on the show and a member of the guild.

[...]Mr. Leno went to the guild beforehand to get permission to write the monologue, say NBC executives. The comedian and a few of his writers met with Patric M. Verrone, the president of the Writers Guild of America West, and Mr. Leno told him that he wanted to write the monologue himself. According to the executives, and at least one writer present at the meeting, Mr. Verrone gave Mr. Leno permission.

[...]The union can't seem to figure out what category to put Jay Leno in – is he a writer or a talk show host? The guild can't insist on treating him as a writer when it wants to control him and then change the script when he seeks an exemption that would allow him to compete with [David] Letterman.
Oh, that's great. Nothing like talking out of both sides of your mouth, guys. Don't you realize how this makes you look to Joe Average TV viewer, who, as the column points out, likes to tune in to late-night TV for relief from tension and backbiting?

Navarrette pretty much sums up my feeling toward unions here:
This whole drama illustrates what's wrong with much of organized labor these days. Unions once served a purpose, but now they just serve their own interests. Whether it's an organization serving mill workers, farm workers, teachers or police officers, it usually starts off with a just cause. But, often, the groups go too far, demand too much and wreak havoc.

And they almost always stray from the principles they espouse. Then, when things go badly, they put the blame on someone or something else. If only we didn't trade with China or outsource to India or import low-wage workers from Guatemala, why, the mill would be open again and business would be humming.

And, of course, it has nothing to do with the fact that the unions demanded that their members were entitled to salaries that eventually would price them out of the market, or that the unions never adapted to change and prepared for the future by reforming some of their more arcane rules.
Well said. But here's the biggest thing from this viewer: After watching Monday night's show, I honestly couldn't tell the difference between that show and one where the unionized writers had been working. Jay was just as funny, and he even drew more viewers than usual last week. Nothing like a long strike to show how unneeded the union workers can sometimes be.

Have you watched any of the late-night shows since they've come back? Are any of the writer-less shows (Letterman doesn't count, because he owns his show and made his own deal with the writers to come back) more or less funny to you this week? And feel free to weigh in on the idea of unions if you didn't get to do so last time.

A not-so-blockbuster movie sequel: Mice on a Plane.

You can have my profanity when you take it from my cold, dead lips: A proposed ordinance in the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles would ban swearing in bars.

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