Pitting bread and circuses against the Empire's strike


According to the Hollywood calendar, today marks the official start of the new year. Executives, agents and writers are returning from their holiday breaks to resume daily activities, which include idling in their offices for the first two categories and picketing the studios for the other.

For the lower-level people in each group, the return is accompanied by high anxiety over inevitable layoffs and force majeure deal terminations stemming from the prolonged writers strike.

For those who spent the time in remote locations, here is a summary of what they missed: Film studios ended the year with a bang at the boxoffice, broadcast TV's late-night shows returned, DGA got in the ring with AMPTP, one Spears sister ended up in a hospital after a standoff with the police, the other got pregnant.

What more appropriate way to kick off the Hollywood new year than last night's debut of "American Gladiators" on NBC, as the broadcast networks are ushering in the era of "bread and circuses"?

The phrase was coined by a writer during the Roman Empire and refers to the government's strategy to avoid unrest and keep the populace happy by distributing free food and staging spectacles like gladiator games.

Today, to avoid viewers' revolt over their favorite scripted series going MIA because of the writers strike, the broadcast nets are feeding them an abundant menu of reality fare and games on and off the screen.

TV executives had to build midseason schedules out of spare parts, mixing the precious few scripted originals with repeats. That is turning TV viewing into a game of Whac-a-Mole with the remote in which people try to catch a fresh offering popping up somewhere on the dial.

And just as the Roman Empire fell, in part, because of spending millions on "bread and circuses," the Hollywood Empire is starting to show some cracks two months into the strike. Such industry mainstays as TV pilot season and the TCA tour already have fallen victims, with the Golden Globes, the Oscars and the upfronts in serious jeopardy.

Other recent signs the entertainment world might be coming to an end:

  Ten days ago, more then 5 million people watched a TBS special featuring nothing but commercials.

  Last week, the winners of NBC's "The Biggest Loser" rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

  "Alvin and the Chipmunks" is nearing $200 million at the boxoffice.

While they've scored points for impact, especially in the awards show department, strikers lag in originality. (David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Zachary Levi: There must be a way to show you're on strike other than growing facial hair.)

While the WGA opened with an shock-and-awe move by striking in November, the guild since has fallen into the tried and true, following the script of the 1988 strike to the letter. "The Tonight Show" returned to the air exactly two months into the walkout in 1988, just as it did last week. Johnny Carson in 1988 cut a deal with the writers guild that allowed his scribes to return to work during the strike, and Letterman has done the same. Carson's pact was part of the guild's campaign to spur negotiations with the studios by inking contracts with indie companies. So was Letterman's. The 1988 strike nevertheless lasted for four more months. Note to talent agents: Start setting up studio and network meetings for April.

According to the calendar in my native Bulgaria, today is St. John the Baptist Day, a big holiday marking the end of the "dirty" days and a new beginning that holds promise for happiness and success.

With all the ugliness surrounding the talks (and lack thereof) between the studios and the guild, what better way to start the Hollywood new year. Happiness and success to you all!