How to Survive the Writers’ Strike

vilkomerson torchwood3h How to Survive the Writers’ StrikeA few weeks ago, I had what should probably just be chalked up to a misunderstanding with Time Warner Cable. The details aren’t important—the end result was that my cable got disconnected (along with my wireless Internet and telephone—damn you, Triple Play package!). This was troublesome for some very basic reasons: I live alone, it’s cold outside and lifelong insomnia has me dependent upon the comforting blue glow of my television after a long day (or night) out. But what scared me more than a couple of nights off of the TV teat was the thought that my carefully cultivated DVR-recorded programs would be wiped out when service eventually was returned. For as the writer’s strike marches on, with its encroaching reality of being forced to choose between American Gladiators or Dancing With the Stars, or to watch my favorite scripted shows over and over in reruns, I’ve been hoarding and rationing some of my favorite programs for the day (fast approaching!) when there isn’t a new show to be had. (Thankfully, when service was restored, everything was still intact.)

And I’m not alone. With the strike yawning into another month … season … eternity, New Yorkers are tucking in for the long haul, bracing themselves for the January and February gray-day doldrums. I took a completely unscientific poll among 20 friends ranging in age, sex, marital status and occupation, to get some specifics on how they were coping with the upcoming television drought. Some admitted to the TiVo/DVR squirreling scheme—the TV equivalent of keeping canned food, bottled water and duct tape under the bed—particularly to catch up on shows they had been considering dropping (Heroes, House, and Nip/Tuck were all mentioned numerous times). Some had branched out to lesser-known shows (the Doctor Who spinoff, Torchwood? Life on Mars? O.K.!), and others admitted caving in to the pull of reality programming for the first time (and all things being fair, The Biggest Loser really is inspiring). A few are catching up on classic flicks they’d always missed at Film Forum (thank you, Turner Classic Movies!); others, in desperation, have moved on to more random cable networks (up in those other numbers) like Ovation, BBC America and Sundance. Oldies but goodies from TV’s past, too, have been brought back courtesy of DVD (Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks and while we’re on the subject … just how much longer do we have to wait for thirtysomething to get on DVD? Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, just tell us what we have to do!).

The thank-God-the-strike-doesn’t-affect-sports mantra came up a few times, there was a lot of chatter over Dave’s beard, and after having numerous discussions about Iowa and last weekend’s debates, I’m beginning to wonder if the strike isn’t somehow responsible for a new surge of civic interest. Only one person said they’d resorted to a television-blackout, opting for reading, classical music, and … a countdown till the new American Idol season begins. In the interest of disclosure, I should admit that I made sure not to ask any of those friends—we all have a couple—who proudly don’t own a television (and like to bring up that fact as much as they can). These are the same people that will pointedly say things like “Which one was Chandler?”, or ask what you’ve been reading, and their dog-in-the-manger attitude (that’s right, an Aesop reference—how you like me now?) is not only tiresome but usually hypocritical as they tend to be the same people who watch The Office in its entirety online. You people are part of the problem, not the solution!

Yes, yes, I know: We live in the most exciting city in the world. There are galleries, museums, live shows, theater and opera and blah blah blah all just a MetroCard swipe away. Whatever. It’s a not so dirty little secret that New Yorkers love their TV just like the rest of the country, and like many of them, we work a lot, make a stab at a social life and come home with just about enough energy to put our feet up on the coffee table and stare blankly at the pretty screen that will distract without exacting too much of an intellectual investment (and they wonder why John From Cincinnati failed) before crawling into bed and doing it all over again.

When television shows first became available on DVD, didn’t it seem like an insane concept? Like, who on earth would rent what they could have watched for free?

For me, all it took one was one particularly nasty bout with the flu and a friend lending me the entire first season of Alias, and it was all over. Now it’s become a common practice for people to wait for their shows to come out on DVD and have their “lost Lost” weekends. We had one Observer staffer literally hiding in his office in the days following last June’s big Sopranos finale, as he’s been waiting to watch the entire final season as a whole when it comes out on DVD. No commercials and no waiting week to week to see what happens to Tony or Jack Bauer: It’s the American dream.

On a recent trip to the (terrifying) Times Square Virgin Megastore, the DVD section was bustling, and particularly so in the television-on-DVD area. I watched a middle-aged man in an FDNY hat pick up a season each of 24 and Veronica Mars, and at least three people being drawn to the giant display of Lost season three. “TV shows always sell a lot,” said Juan Estevez, one of that section’s employees. “Sopranos, Heroes, South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy Friends,” he said. (Friends? “People love that show,” he said.) Mr. Estevez said that he hadn’t noticed a particular influx in buying since the strike began (“When is all that going to be over?” another Virgin employee wondered), but that DVD sales of popular television shows have been a constant almost since the beginning.

And how about Netflix? Are they raking it in? “Television shows are 20 percent of what we ship, out of the 1.7 million DVDs on a typical day,” said Steve Swasey, vice president of corporate communication at the company. Mr. Swasey noted queue demand has stayed the same before and during the strike, but still: That’s a hell of a lot of TV on DVD.

Even as the strike creeps into month three, most of my friends remain staunchly pro-writer. And yet, as we all continue to stockpile our recorded programs and DVDs to get us through the lean months ahead, aren’t we sort of proving the WGA’s point? (“The strike has given me a chance to catch up on shows,” said one technologically hip friend. “I finally finished Dexter season two and am up to speed on Nip/Tuck. I download most of the shows on to my laptop to watch even though I have cable and DVR. I have so much media coming in.”)

Back in 1988, when the writers last went on strike, home video sales was one of the major issues under debate (and, later, the writers got super-screwed with the advent of DVD, which made producers kabillions and writers all but zip). Now it’s all this scary-sounding “new media” that’s at stake, and considering how much television watching has
changed in the past 20 years, even in the past eight, just consider what lies ahead. The writers might be angry, but we’re actually afraid. Very afraid.