In the Realms of the Unreal
The grim reality of a strike and the tao of Whitney Port
Hal Holbrook looks as if he is going to cry. The 89-year-old veteran actor may have good reason. He stares directly into the camera, delivering his lines with the gravitas he might employ when playing a u.s. president informing his nation's people they have only hours to live before a meteor destroys the earth. He pauses melodramatically between each clause, his voice catching -- at times, even breaking -- and invites you to linger on his glassy eyes, welling with tears.
He's not auditioning for a role though; he's delivering a testimonial supporting the Screen Actors Guild. His voice quivers when he stops, and he delivers the line you have been waiting for: "I'm going to say that we should vote 'yes' on the strike authorization." There's another presidential pause, as if he's just said he approved an order to drop a nuclear warhead. The vote takes place January 20, and is likely to be passed, but even with the approval, a strike is unlikely.
But Holbrook is in the moment - he's just dropped heart-wrenching, earth-shattering news, and it's pained him. Just about everyone at SAG refers to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) as "management," spat out in way that makes it sound like they are all fist-fighting with Pinkertons, and Holbrook relishes this image of the amptp as a group of robber barons. He even ties the break down in negotiations between AMPTP and SAG to current economic woes, citing how the administration has bailed out people "who ride around in limousines ... and take little vacations." The analogy leads up to some tough talk: "The working man is the one that's getting it - you know where." The actor is a working man who deserves to get paid, he says, "and they don't want to pay us."
Then again, maybe he is auditioning, but such is the weird through-the-looking-glass-world of Hollywood. The performance is part-activism, part-theater, but most resembles one of those backroom video confessionals popularized by MTV's The Real World. The waterworks about to break the surface might not be about a nuclear warhead, the impending obliteration of the human race, or residuals paid to actors on new media, after all. No, maybe Holbrook is just practicing for what he's going to do on the next season of the Surreal Life when that bitch Florence Henderson finishes his prune juice in the communal fridge and doesn't even replace it. And reality-show stars aren't even members of SAG.
While some high-profile actors, such as Tom Hanks, George Clooney and Matt Damon have broken ranks and spoken out against the potential strike, Holbrook joined a burgeoning and diverse group, including Martin Sheen, Alicia Witt, Rob Schneider, Elliot Gould and Justine Bateman, a growing chorus of scenery-chewing Web videos fiercely supporting the notion of approving the strike authorization.
SAG national president, Allen Rosenberg (who has spent time on both Chicago Hope and E.R.), said in a grave statement delivered in the-patient-is-not-going-to-make-it tones: "The Internet should provide a world of opportunity for our members. Instead our employers are trying to use it as a weapon to fundamentally change the way we are compensated in ways that will make it impossible for the vast majority of us to survive in the future." AMPTP has offered May 28 as the date to reconvene negotiations, but takes the position that the deal already offered is similar to the one that six other Hollywood guilds and unions, including the writers, have agreed to.
"Why should sag have a better deal than everybody else?" asks Brian Terkelsen, executive vice president and managing director of MediaVest's connectivetissue division. "They are just out of touch."
"Another Hollywood strike would severely damage the broadcast and cable nets by accelerating already declining ratings," says RJ Palmer CEO Peter Knobloch. "Last year, because of the 'other' strike, the loss of ratings was more dramatic than in prior years and an actors' strike would have a similar negative effect."
The ratings losses have been significant. As much as 25 percent of network prime's viewership has evaporated in the last two years according to research from wpp's Group M. And with ad revenue estimated to go down as much as 8 percent overall this year, that would mean a loss of $732 million to the $9.2 billion primetime-level upfront. The traditional media economic package is in question, because, clearly, the tv business model is in choppy waters. The networks will dredge online, where a good chunk of the revenue is drifting.
"It's all happening anyway," says Terkelsen. While these changes weren't caused by the writers' strike, or the growth of time-shifting or iptv alone, they've certainly worked together to speed change. "The networks weathered the writers' strike very well," he says. They rushed enough material into production and found enough stop-gaps that you can't point specifically to the strike harming ratings. Though, of course, it didn't help. A new strike, says Terkelsen, will result in the "erosion in the ability to renew," and ultimately further wound upfront sales this spring.
When the AMPTP suspended negotiations, it said that the portions of the deal concerning new media (such as the ability to produce lower-budget Internet-only content with non-union actors and lower residuals for online broadcasts) could be renegotiated in a few years as media change over. Doug Allen, sag's chief negotiator says, "It didn't happen that way with home video or dvd or cable television. We can't trust that management will revisit new-media residuals in the future. Once the money is in their pockets it will be all but impossible to yank it back out."
So yes, SAG and AMPTP are at war over new media, but not solely new media. Product integration is another part of the agreement that's a point of contention. Actors should have the right to refuse product integration, says SAG chief negotiator Doug Allen.
But this sort of diva behavior is just going to drive the networks further into the warm, cheap embrace of unscripted programming. You know who doesn't mind plugging so many products into their programs that they begin to resemble half-hour long infomercials, but with crying?
Reality show stars.
Whitney Port is not an actress. But she plays one on television. Starring in the popular reality-tv show The City (a spin off of the similarly popular The Hills), she lives in a fabulous New York City apartment that's about as realistic as the ones that the characters in Friends lived in on her assistant's salary. Her existence, coated in a sticky cinema sheen, is a catalog come to life served in addictive 22-minute vignettes.
The City is the most watched show among women age 12-34 across all cable competition, according to MTV. And media attention is lavished on its stars everywhere from In Touch and Entertainment Tonight to in-depth feature stories in New York magazine (which also runs scene-by-scene dissections of each episode on its Web site). The show heralds a new stage for unscripted entertainment: surreality-TV.
TV content no longer stays in its little box or compressed on a flat screen. Whitney and her City cohorts, and Lauren "LC" Conrad, Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt from The Hills, are their own cottage industry. Their "real" lives and other endeavors provide fodder for the marketing machine that provides them with totally fake lives verging on pop art. They are stars for doing nothing other than being themselves, and it isn't their job to act or sing or entertain. Their jobs are being media commodities. They are not merely famous for being famous. They are famous for being famous for being famous. In effect, they are paid spokespeople for a lifestyle, and onto that lifestyle all manner of product may be grafted.
There is a case to be made for The City as branded content. Whitney "works" for clothing designer Diane Von Furstenberg, which in effect brands her life, the basis for the show. Von Furstenberg herself appears on the show and her clothing is featured frequently, as well.
That the stars of the show don't actually work at work provided fodder for the gossip pages when the show premiered. As if being vapid and annoying were not hard enough work, people expected them to actually toil at day jobs? In news that would surprise only those who think wrestling is real, a source told The New York Post's Page Six in December that Whitney does not actually do any work for Diane Von Furstenberg. "She doesn't really work. She is hardly ever in the office," said the source, who might well have been a flak at MTV drumming up publicity for the premiere.
And she and LC always looked so busy when they were at the Teen Vogue offices on The Hills, sitting in front of immaculate desks and staring blankly. The next bomb "the source" will likely drop is that Olivia Palermo (the socialite who is Whitney's work friend) doesn't actually like Whitney?...?and that she's only on the show for the attention?... and that dvf didn't hire them both for their immense fashion talent.
Olivia Palermo and Whitney were essentially hired in the publicity department of DVF, so being on the show - or more accurately, just being - is their job. And how Olivia got both those jobs further illuminates the PR machine behind such shows. Palermo brought some of her own notoriety, something that hadn't been attempted on either of the first two generations (The Hills itself was a spin-off of Laguna Beach). Palermo became an object of interest outside of the tight circle of Manhattan society when an email she supposedly sent (it turned out to be a hoax concocted by a blogger) to other socialites, complaining about the way they locked her out of their clique, leaked. Palermo's minor celebrity included an appearance in Radar magazine and talks with abc about appearing in a reality series (which she ditched for The City).
But she may have diamonds, not stars, in her eyes. Palermo told New York magazine that she might like to use her newfound City exposure (she'd already said she was launching herself as "a brand") to pursue her career goals. "Like, maybe I'll start a jewelry line," she told the mag. And why? "It's best to start with something small, right?" That's right: because jewelry comes in tiny boxes, it's a good place to start.
The level of opportunities available for product integration is unprecedented. The legion of fans may wonder what Whitney wore in every scene of The City and where it came from. And they are in luck, because her CeleBuzz blog reads like the fashion credits in the back of the fall issue of Vogue.
One can only imagine all the hard work "Whitney" (aka some poor intern at mtv whose job it is to keep track of the outfits on the show) puts into her blog. The posts sometimes include insightful details such as "a cute, casual outfit to wear during the daytime," but generally we just get a list of designer names, and a helpful offer to fill us in on any outfits that might have been left out (hard as that is to imagine). But people do ask about shoes and such that the Whit wore, and apparently were not paid placements or not important enough to warrant a credit (these requests for info go unanswered). For the record MTV says cast members wear their own clothing, and the show does not employ a stylist.
The comments praising Whitney for actively engaging her fans are particularly comical. Well, nearly as funny as those praising her for being a "fashion pioneer." It was the H&M bag she carried in the scene when she had lunch with Alex where she really broke ground, wasn't it?
While this sort of thing is sort of the same old thing in new packaging - the show may in fact be something of an unholy hybrid of fashion mag, gossip show, soap opera and music video - it offers exponentially higher layers of integration. A 2006 Magna Global study pegged the average branded minutes per hour in network prime scripted programming at 3:07, while reality shows in prime came in a hefty 11:05. There are no stats for The City, but it must blow this mark away. Diane Von Furstenberg couldn't have pitched any better level of brand integration for herself. The Pussycat Dolls, who sing the show's theme song, hope that The City does for them what The Hills did for Natasha Bedingfield. Attention-hungry New Yorkers in Whitney's circle and other hangers-on hope to land their own deals and start it all over again. And it can be lucrative. Lauren Conrad reportedly pulls in $1.5 million a year (only a small portion of which is from her $75,000 per episode fee.)
Sure the formula isn't foolproof. Fourth-generation spin off Brody Jenner's Bromance, in which the erstwhile Hills-cad searches for a new best bud to replace Spencer Pratt gameshow-style, isn't off to a stellar start, drawing fewer than a million viewers to its premiere. But then the granddaddy, Real World, is still going strong with its Brooklyn season - the series' 21st. And the show might be learning a thing or two from its younger siblings: At the conclusion of filming, the producers sold the crappy Ikea furniture and other show-used brand name items on Craigslist.
Of course, a parade of witless young ingénues, people licking bugs off windshields for money, overweight has-beens, extreme home remodelers, caterwauling model wannabes, aspiring fashion designers, and guys who bring their mothers on dates won't completely replace actors and writers any time soon, but tv execs are more than willing to explore their options now that they've established a low-risk, high-return model. From the rash of strikes in the late '80s that arose out of labor disputes with everybody from the writers and directors to the Screen Extras Guild and the American Federation of Musicians, to the most recent deadlock, work stoppages have played a crucial role in the creation of reality television. And the networks will continue to go this route as scripted schedule time compresses and budgets downsize. A sag strike will only speed the plow.
And there have already been some train wrecks along the way.
"Don't get me wrong; I love Mike Darnell," says MediaVest's Terkelsen of the Fox executive behind such tawdry hits as Temptation Island, When Animals Attack, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, and the American Idol juggernaut who once told The New York Times that he didn't green-light a show called The World's Most Embarrassing Throw-Up Moments, not because he thought it was in poor taste, but because the vomiting segments were recreations and not actual footage. "We never knew how far outrageous could go until Mike Darnell showed us," he says. vh1's 2009 newcomer Tool Academy may not exactly be the high point of western civilization, but at least we got to skip the vomit.