Between A Rock And A Hard Place

Another day, another reality check for creatives who simply cannot understand why the less creative ,at least artistically, aren’t giving them what they believe is their right to be appreciated and, of course, adequately (in their minds) compensated.   As well as an overly sympathetic online trade press that, for the most part, gives voice to these existential frustrations and fears, especially as writers are closing in on two months of striking and SAG-AFTRA members are getting set to join them.

After Warner Discovery and Disney had previously done so, this time it was Paramount+(aargh)SHOWTIME that ruffled industry feathers, as ScreenRant’s Abdullah Al-Ghamdi reported:

Per The Hollywood Reporter, ahead of a planned merger with Showtime, Paramount+ has announced the cancellation of the following shows: Star Trek: Prodigy, Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, The Game, and Queen of the Universe. Paramount+ said it was “refining our content offering to deliver the best streaming experience for subscribers” amid the Showtime merger. According to the reporting, financial concerns and discoverability on the platform were cited as the reasons these titles are being removed rather than getting cancelled. Read their statement below:

“In the unified Paramount+ with Showtime plan, the Showtime portfolio of edgy, critically acclaimed programming will complement the broad and popular Paramount+ library in a seamless offering that appeals to everyone, enables more discovery between the brands and builds overall viewership.

As we prepare to combine Paramount+ and Showtime later this month in the U.S., we are refining our content offering to deliver the best streaming experience for subscribers. This is consistent with our content strategy since launch and across our business, which ensures we make smart, efficient choices, informed by audience data and insights. We are removing select programming as we look to optimize Showtime’s robust slate of premium originals.

The Paramount+ series ‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies,’ ‘Star Trek: Prodigy,’ ‘Queen of the Universe’ and ‘The Game’ have completed their runs on Paramount+ and will not be returning to the service. We want to extend our thanks to our tremendously talented cast and crew and our producing partners for their passionate work and dedication on these programs and we wish them all the best on their future endeavors.”

The story was picked up by other sites as the day wore on, with reactions from those even tangentially affected bordering on despair.  Particularly since, like their competitors, no concrete data akin to Nielsen ratings was cited.   Devoid of any third-party proof of performance, or lack thereof, the ability to accept the fates of these shows by the passion bases that did embrace them has been bordering on manic.  And their ability to even try and understand what drove the decisions of the suits that made them is almost nil.

As someone who has worked with data and has at least been at the table with these executives for decades, let me try and assure you:   Despite the obvious gap in transparency, it’s the same old story.   The platforms utilize proprietary first party metrics, inclusive of viewership, to make their calls.  It’s data, and compared to the incompleteless of Nielsen’s current measurement, it’s arguably far more accurate.   And just like the good old days, often data is only part of the decision-making process.  Now, more than ever, factors such as corporate synergy, cost-benefit analysis and, yes, personal favoritism of executives calling the shots can be and often supercede mere numbers.  How else can you explain why LOPEZ VS. LOPEZ is continuing?

Once Yosemite Zas realized that Wall Street would be more forgiving to his stock price if, like is often the case with bad contracts with failed creatives, a one-time write-down would be the most beneficial step they could take toward some sort of positive trajectory, pressure has been put on his competitors to follow suit.  And, like Zaslav, Paramount’s current leadership, topped by Chris McCarthy, has little background with scripted series.  And they’re not unique.  Bob Iger rose through ABC Sports early in his career.  Comcast’s top brass came up through affiliate sales in Mississippi and Philadelphia.  The top dogs at Apple and Amazon played with computers in garages in suburban Seattle.  They didn’t necessarily experience the joy of seeing something in their soul take shape on a page, on an audition video or a soundstage.  Or the life-changing exuberance seeing some incredibly beautiful people pursue their dreams in front of my widening eyes as I did.

Which is why is it SO DAMNED HARD for me to need to say to anyone who is feeling even a bit of the anger toward anyone at Paramount or any other entity today:  Grow up.

These executives don’t answer to you, they answer to their shareholders. They’re doing their jobs.  Tax laws currently exist where taking these steps help them do their job better, just like more powerful IPhones that can run more sophisticated movie-making software help you to do yours.  Do you willingly choose to do a worse job for some greater good?   Well, neither do they.

And yes, there’s minimal data transparency.  I’ve previously urged that among the non-negotiable points that strikers should insist upon is getting access to the same kind of data that writers in certain parts of Europe get from the likes of Netflix and Amazon in those territories.  Use your global connections for actual learning, not just solidarity.  I truly love and admire creatives, some way more than others, so I’m yet again offering to do a deep dive of any of it free of charge,  With the caveat cited above that they may not ultimately matter to those in power, but if it will help the grieving process for any of you, that alone is a reward in itself.

If you think I’m being overly harsh, you should probably avoid the intriguing series of exchanges that AllYourScreens’ Rick Scott has been conducting with an unnamed Apple TV+ executive, the second installment of which dropped yesterday afternoon amidst the latest jarring news about streaming cancellations.  The executive is notably nervous that their honesty and forthrightness isn’t sitting well with their superiors.  I’ve had the pleasure of having similar private conversations with many of them in my previous lives, so I may very well know this mystery person, or at least their superiors.  Which is why it resonates so much with me, and why I encourage you to read it in full.  What I will share here are a few of the more significant responses to a couple of Ellis’ questions:

What do you make of the writers’ reaction to your interview? Or have you paid attention?

Oh, I’ve noticed it.  I understand their anger and I agree with a lot of their points. It’s not that I don’t value their work. But I don’t enough people are out there telling WGA members, “Look, it doesn’t matter about history or offering the opportunity for gaining experience on the set. That stuff only matters on the margins, if at all. All of this – the size of the writers rooms, residuals, the growth of non-union productions…even AI. It’s all about the money. 

I’m not part of the negotiations, but I can tell you that everyone is obsessed with costs right now. It’s easy to look at Apple and say “They have ten of billions in the bank, the costs of settling this means nothing to them.” But that isn’t true. Scrooge McDuck didn’t give his employees extra money because he had a vault full of gold. You can’t think that way.

And, in response to the allegedly more existential issues at hand:

AI is looming out there and the problem is that no one can predict what may or may not happen in the next 3-5 years. Both sides are trying to predict the future and protect themselves against some unknowable future. And when you do that, you’re as likely as not to get it wrong. Do I think that Apple is going to start utilizing AI in the writing process anytime soon? No. But I wouldn’t want to bet my career on. AI is going to be like the cellphone. It’s going to go from clunky and marginally useful to being everywhere. Imagine trying to negotiate a contract at the turn of the last century that tried to anticipate how people would use their phones five or ten years later. No matter what you predicted, you’d probably be wrong. And that’s my fear about AI. No matter what either side gambles on during the negotiations, we’re going to look back in a few years and think we were fucking morons.

Honestly, no one can identify more with heartbreak and existential panic than I.  My rent is due again soon and yet again I’m still waiting on decisions for something more stable and higher-paying than driving people around for a net of a dollar of mile before tips.  My only saving grace is that many reports are emerging that driverless cars are frequently violating traffic laws and would have caused fatal collisions in real-life circumstances, which means at least in this world I’m less close to being replaced than how algorithms and, yes, younger, more demographically desirable drones have already replaced me and many of my talented colleagues.

But short of anyone who has contributed even a penny to my disappointingly frequent requests to click on the link below, which I cannot help but reiterate today, no one is coming to my rescue any time soon.

And no writer or actor, or sympathizer with either, should expect any end to the kind of actions and stories we are seeing like the Paramount+ (yecch) SHOWTIME release from yesterday.  And, frankly, it could be an awfully long summer of staring before anyone else at Apple TV+ or anywhere else is even as understanding as Rick Ellis’ “Deep Throat”, let alone me.

So here’s my bottom line suggestion to all of us.  Let’s work together at doing something different that will hopefully be better received than what we’ve done in the past. All I yearn for is closure.  You may already have yours.  Consider it a blessing.

And know darn well that I would literally give years off my life if more of you would actually want to join hands with me to do so.  One in particular.

SIGHS….

Until next time…

Fundraiser by Steven Leblang : Steve Leblang (gofundme.com)

 

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