Revolution in the airwaves: Wind of change is howling


Ninety years ago, radical American journalist John Reed, portrayed by Warren Beatty in his 1981 film "Reds," wrote "Ten Days that Shook the World," a firsthand account of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.

I've been thinking about that title a lot for the past week as we've finally had time to reflect on the past three months when, on a much smaller Hollywood scale, we too witnessed a historic event.

They may not be 100 days that shook the world -- though the bizarre Golden Globes probably shocked thousands of viewers around the globe -- but the writers strike shook up the TV business.

Did it really?

Even before the strike began, TV executives were touting its potential profound effect on the industry.

"It would give us an excuse to shake things up," Fox's Kevin Reilly said in October.

The longer the strike went, the louder the voices for change within the TV networks became.

And in a weird way, they blended in a broader call for change.

The writers strike coincided with the run-up to the presidential primary season and its crucial first races.

The two didn't intermingle much, though in announcing the tentative deal with the studios, WGA West president Patric Verrone made a point of thanking Democratic hopefuls John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for their support.

But Democrats' message of change, embodied by Obama, rung surprisingly close to the media moguls' stance during the strike.

"Change isn't easy," Obama said Jan. 9, a day after he lost the New Hampshire primary to Clinton. "Change is hard. Change is always met by resistance from the status quo."

Twenty days later, NBC Uni's topper Jeff Zucker addressed a packed room at NATPE.

"Change isn't easy, and sometimes it requires a catalyst. This past November, maybe we got one, when talks broke down between the media companies and the writers guild."

The rhetoric has worked wonders for Obama, whose message of change has resonated with voters, allowing him to sweep the seven contests since Super Tuesday and emerge as the front-runner in the Democratic race.

On the other hand, no other network followed NBC's call to scrap upfront presentations -- a major piece in Zucker's "Time for Change" NATPE speech. Faced with the possibility of being the odd man out after all the other nets said Thursday that they will hold presentations in May, NBC began planning an upfront-week event.

Ironically and very appropriately for the TV business, in English, the word change has a double meaning: a period of transformation as well as money.

On the upfront presentation issue, NBC got shortchanged for now.

Obama's New Hampshire concession speech inspired's rousing "Yes We Can" video that has amassed some 10 million views to become the unofficial anthem of this presidential campaign.

It reminds me of another song, Scorpions' "Wind of Change."

Inspired by the German band's visit to Moscow in the final years of the same Soviet Empire whose birth was chronicled by John Reed, it became hymn of the dramatic political changes in Eastern Europe surrounding the fall of communism.

"The future's in the air /I can feel it everywhere/blowing with the wind of change," the lyric goes.

Time will tell if Obama will have that wind at his back all the way through November.

Meanwhile, a week after the end of the strike, the broadcast networks seem to be slipping into their old ways, sticking to the traditional upfront presentations.

It remains to be seen if they will follow through on their other strike-time promises: to finally switch to year-round development and producing fewer, reasonably priced pilots.

For inspiration, they can look to Obama, who, after his loss in New Hampshire, rebounded with a big victory in South Carolina.

"Let me remind you that change will not be easy," he said after the win. "But don't tell me we can't change. Yes, we can."