Drop the Crest! There’s a Strike Going on! … W. Does Letterman, Will Bill?

Wednesday, Oct. 18

Hey! Why don’t you care about the commercial actors’ strike? Why aren’t you hooking arms with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins and standing up to the corporate greed of the advertising industry? Why aren’t you boycotting Procter & Gamble products, like the members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists asked you to last week? What the heck is that tube of Crest still doing in your medicine cabinet?

Why? Well, chances are, you don’t know what the heck is going on with this strangely imperceptible actors’ strike, now about to enter its sixth month. Unless your name is Mr. Whipple–or Mr. Saatchi–you probably don’t have a vested interest in the new round of negotiations between the actors and the ad industry, set to begin on Thursday, Oct. 19. Chances are that you aren’t even affected indirectly. Airline pilots walk out, you care because you need to get to LAX on time. Commercial actors walk out? What’s the downside for you? Bad commercials?

Of course, that’s the selfish way of viewing things. Talk to the commercial actors, and you hear an entirely different story–about a strike in which the core issues of “pay for play” (actors want to be paid each time an advertisement runs) and Internet transmittal rights (actors want to ensure they will be paid for Internet advertising as well) represent a critical moment for the new media age. They lament a union they said has been unfairly characterized as a bunch of pampered celebrities, when the overwhelming majority of the membership earns less than $5,000 a year. And they describe a walkout that has already cost the New York City production community millions in lost revenues.

But commercial actors also agree that their strike has had a tough time getting any kind of attention from the public at large. Some of this is for obvious reasons. “An actors’ strike isn’t necessarily going to bring New York to its knees,” said Cynthia Vance, a SAG and AFTRA member who serves on the New York Strike Strategy Committee. “It doesn’t really disrupt too many people’s lives on a daily basis.”

At the same time, Ms. Vance and her commercial-actor cohorts feel ignored by the mainstream media. While the actors’ strike has been big news for months in the trade papers like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter , they have been frustrated by the lack of strike coverage elsewhere, especially on television. “I wouldn’t believe it unless I experienced it directly–this tremendous dismissal and complete ignorance of the strike by the major networks,” said Ms. Vance, who also criticized the coverage in the print media, though to a lesser extent.

The lack of big-media attention paid to the commercial actors’ strike has encouraged a bit of conspiracy-theorizing. “I’d hate to be paranoid, but maybe it’s because all of the networks and most of the newspapers are sponsored by the very corporations that tend to benefit from [advertising],” said Susan Sarandon, who was among a handful of actors and SAG officials who presented their case to politicians in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Oct. 12. “I don’t know. Maybe they just don’t think it’s newsworthy to have a union that is out on strike for six months that’s not operating an elevator or controlling traffic.”

Ironically, it was the presence of Ms. Sarandon and her celebrity brethren that was supposed to boost the profile of the media-starved strike. And it’s true that the support of Ms. Sarandon, her partner Tim Robbins and colleagues Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Kevin Spacey, Rosie O’Donnell and others have helped raise public awareness in recent months. Still, Ms. Sarandon emphasized that it remains a “very difficult, uphill struggle to get anything placed in the press.

“We have these press conferences, and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. comes out and says that they are asking for a boycott of [Procter & Gamble] for all of its members, and it doesn’t even get on the news,” Ms. Sarandon said.

And there is also a potential downside to the celebrity support. Nothing drives a striking commercial actor apoplectic faster than the suggestion that he or she is living high on the hog. After all, at any given time, 95 percent of the SAG membership is unemployed, and many actors who work commercials do it as a supplementary source of income. But putting movie stars out in front of the union makes them the public face of the strike–even if they are not exactly representative of the union, with their million-dollar salaries and legions of adoring fans. “The people who work this contract, myself included, are a lot more vulnerable,” said Ms. Vance. “And these people [celebrities] are a lot less vulnerable.”

The presence of celebrities in the SAG/AFTRA effort has also failed to rattle the advertisers, insisted Matthew Miller, the president of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers. “People know that SAG is on strike–they have gotten that message,” Mr. Miller said. “But whether the public actually cares about it–besides the sort of outside-in, Entertainment Tonight -style interest of ‘What does Tim Robbins really think about this?’–I don’t know what they [actors] hope to achieve.”

Still, Ms. Vance said she and others were grateful for the celebrity support, which she said has helped to make the SAG/AFTRA strike a “cool, cool thing.” At first, she said, there weren’t a lot of major stars rallying around the SAG/AFTRA tent. But more celebrities have come to the cause, she said, as they have recognized that the commercial actors’ strike is likely to affect negotiations for the theatrical actors’ contract, which will expire next spring.

Both Ms. Vance and Ms. Sarandon said they were hopeful that negotiations could bring a resolution to the strike soon. Meanwhile, don’t go looking for the Crest in Ms. Sarandon’s medicine cabinet. “I don’t have it,” she said. “I buy all organic.”

Tonight, Ms. Sarandon and Mr. Robbins and their brood brush heartily with their Tom’s of Maine (we presume), and then throw organic tomatoes at the screen when Rudy Giuliani shows up on the season premiere of Law & Order . [WNBC, 4, 10 p.m.]

Thursday, Oct. 19

So tonight’s the night. After a lot of hemming and hawing, George W. Bush finally worked up the guts to say yes to a New York appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman .

Late Show executive producer Maria Pope said the staff would be helping Mr. Bush’s camp drum up a Top 10 list, among other things. And everyone appeared relieved that Mr. Bush would be coming to the Ed Sullivan Theatre and not speaking via satellite remote, as he did when he bombed during a garbled, Mission to Mars -style appearance on March 1. “This is where everyone seems in agreement–that he should come in here face-to-face and sit next to Dave,” said Ms. Pope. “I think that will make everything more likely to go swimmingly.”

The Bush camp’s reluctance to reappear on the Late Show , of course, has been terrific fodder for Mr. Letterman for months. The cranky host has repeatedly ridiculed Mr. Bush as a “pinhead,” and he especially turned up the heat after the governor balked at a Late Show debate alongside Vice President Al Gore (Mr. Gore, ever the Eddie Haskell, said yes immediately to the debate idea). But Ms. Pope downplayed her boss’ on-air tirades, saying they were all in good fun, not out of preference for one candidate or another. “We’re proud to be nonpartisan about all this stuff,” she said. “If we had gotten our way about the debate, we probably wouldn’t have harped [on Mr. Bush] as much as we did.”

“If it was reversed and the governor had said yes to the debate and the Vice President had said no, you would have heard all the same things about the Vice President,” Ms. Pope continued. “In this case, the Vice President jumped right in there and said yes and the governor’s people never officially said no, but [they] just weren’t cooperating, and then there was some of the silliness of not being able to get them on the phone. But yeah, it has nothing to do with being partisan in one direction or the other. If anything, as Dave has said, we’re right down the middle–we want whoever is the biggest boob to get elected.”

As producer and the host of the Late Show ‘s Campaign 2000 riff, of course, Ms. Pope was the person who was charged with getting Mr. Bush back on the show. And if that tall task frustrated her from time to time, it proved to be worth it in the long run, Ms. Pope said. Not only is Mr. Bush doing the show, he will be appearing at close to the eleventh hour of a close race–not the typical time for candidates to take chances by appearing on late-night programs. “I’m delighted [he’s coming] in a moment when the campaign is heating up,” Ms. Pope said.

As for Mr. Gore showing up again, Ms. Pope didn’t rule that out. She also said that the Late Show has already begun to put out feelers to get the Big Fella, President Clinton, after the November election. “We’re always trying to lay the groundwork for those future visits by former Presidents,” Ms. Pope said.

Also on the Late Show tonight, James Brown, a man who should have been elected President. Knows a thing or two about subliminable messages. [WCBS, 2, 11:35 p.m.]

Friday, Oct. 20

Edward R. Murrow never had to deal with young punks hasslin’ him like this . Two intrepid college students, brothers Matthew and Greg Sheffield, have cooked up a Web site, Ratherbiased.com, that obsessively chronicles and questions the quotations of longtime CBS anchorman Dan Rather.

It’s not as zesty as that old zine Die Evan Dando, Die , but Ratherbiased.com is pretty unique in that it’s not half-assed, like a lot of homespun Web sites. Ratherbiased.com is exhaustive, almost scarily so. The Sheffield frères , students at Southwest Missouri State University, appear to be spending waaaaay too much time at the campus library and on Lexis-Nexis, sifting through Mr. Rather’s quirky quotes and various confrontations. Not only does Ratherbiased.com chronicle Mr. Rather’s signature strange moments (“What’s the frequency, Kenneth?”, “Courage” et al.), it offers the long-legged Texan’s thoughts on everything from the religious right to Elián Gonzalez to gun control.

Of course, Ratherbiased.com has an angle, and the Sheffields’ beef is that Mr. Rather doesn’t give enough air time to opinions that are contrary to his own. (Those allegedly ignored opinions, naturally, tend to be of the conservative ilk.) “It kind of started with his very vociferous interview with George H.W. Bush in the ’88 campaign,” said Matthew Sheffield.

Mr. Sheffield said that one of his main hopes for the site is that Mr. Rather would see it and become more objective. “You know, we think that he probably could change,” he said. “It’s just a matter of thinking about it harder and exposing himself to a more diverse crowd in his newsroom.”

Mr. Rather went to Israel last week and couldn’t be reached. But his spokesperson at CBS News, Kim Akhtar, offered this take on ratherbiased.com: “The Web site is a waste of time. The people who put it together obviously have very little else to do with their lives. What I find most ironic is the [Web site’s] name: It is very biased against Mr. Rather.”

Of course, Ratherbiased.com begs another question: What journalist do the young Sheffields admire? Bill O’Reilly? Chris Matthews? Nope–David Broder, that snow-pated sexpot from the Washington Post . “Very professional,” Matthew Sheffield said.

Tonight, the sprightly Sheffields grab their pads and pens and monitor Mr. Rather on the CBS Evening News . Watch it, Dan! [WCBS, 2, 6:30 p.m.]

Saturday, Oct. 21

Tonight is Game 1 of the Greatest World Series in Freakin’ History (assuming the Yankees’ bullpen doesn’t disintegrate and cause the most horrid city subway derailment of all time). Both teams play in New York. Both teams have bloated payrolls that fans mistake as hard work and destiny. Both teams have suffered the indignity of having should-be-beaned blowhard Tim McCarver as their color commentator. That’s what we call even . [FOX, 5, 7:30 p.m.]

Sunday, Oct. 22

Game 2 of the Greatest World Series in Freakin’ History . Tonight, Roger Clemens takes himself out of the game with an upset tummy, so David Cone comes in and gives up back-to-back home runs to Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura. Joe Torre watches sternly from bench, sends Zimmer out for decaf mochaccinos. [FOX, 5, 7:30 p.m.]

Monday, Oct. 23

Hey, Kenneth Kimes, thanks for all the free publicity! It was truly a wild couple of days over there at Court TV last week, in the aftermath of the Upper East Side co-killer’s Oct. 10 prison uprising, in which Mr. Kimes grabbed a PaperMate pen and held it to the throat of producer Maria Zone for four hours.

Court TV does this kind of thing all the time, of course–fireside chats with convicted murderers, etc.–but nothing like Mr. Kimes’ cheesy, Law & Order -esque outburst had occurred before, said the cable network’s spokesperson, Frederika Brookfield. But the attack wasn’t going to make the hard-nosed Court TV people cower, she said. “We’ll continue to seek [jailhouse] interviews when we do a documentary, and when we are granted access, we will go in there and do the interview,” Ms. Brookfield said.

Tonight on Court TV, Inside Cell Block F , where no one gets a lousy PaperMate pen. [CRT, 40, 11:30 p.m.]

Tuesday, Oct. 24

Tonight is the premiere of The Michael Richards Show . The pilot episode of this thing was really crummy, so NBC flip-flopped the air date of the pilot and the second episode, running the second episode first and the pilot the next week, which is kind of like turning an ugly shirt inside out and expecting people not to notice. [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]