In Depth

Adalian Column: Life Imitates Art at SAG

Like most Americans, a pretty substantial chunk of whatever limited knowledge I possess can be attributed to something I saw on television.

My understanding of our nation’s legislative process and fundamental grammar were shaped by “Schoolhouse Rock.” I was taught manners by Henrietta Hippo and the gang from “New Zoo Revue.”

And last week, “30 Rock”—quite unintentionally, I’m sure—managed to crystallize what could be the underlying cause behind a Screen Actors Guild strike, should one occur.

A subplot on the Dec. 4 episode of Tina Fey’s reliably awesome half-hour found the thespian characters played by Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski working themselves into a tizzy over the actions of Kenneth the intern. Kenneth’s crime? His comedic asides on the elevator were stealing attention away from the actors, and the actors couldn’t make sense of a world in which they weren’t the complete center of attention.Adalian Column Quote

“Attention is what gives us power,” Ms. Krakowski’s Jenna Maroney explains to Mr. Morgan’s Tracy Jordan. “If someone threatens that, you have to put a stop to it.”

Jenna then suggests that she and Tracy throw a tantrum about the air conditioning, just to let everyone know that they’re “the big dogs around here.”

Apparently, Jenna Maroney and Tracy Jordan are now helping set strategy for the SAG national negotiating committee.

That’s the only explanation I can muster for the union’s decision to seek a strike authorization from its membership.

“A strike authorization from SAG members will show the AMPTP that the unique needs of actors cannot be addressed by a pattern of bargaining,” SAG leadership said last week in a message to members. “Actors’ needs must be addressed for a deal to be made.”

Pattern bargaining has been a part of life in Hollywood for decades. But apparently now, with the industry still reeling from last year’s writers’ strike, SAG has decided that pattern bargaining is no longer acceptable.

Now, when the national economy teeters on the edge of depression, when millions of Americans would do anything to find a job.

Now, when the United Auto Workers—not exactly pushovers—are offering concessions in order to help their industry make it through a period of painful transition.

Now, when seismic shifts in technology threaten to destroy the ad-based business model on which free TV has thrived for six decades, and when the idea of one of the Big Four networks simply disappearing is no longer unthinkable.

Now, less than a year after writers and directors won significant concessions from the studios and, most importantly, established groundbreaking precedents that recognize new-media distribution counts when it comes to splitting revenues.

Now, when so many hundreds of thousands of below-the-line workers can’t even comprehend the prospect of once again losing work for weeks or months while millionaires on both sides of the (unfortunately metaphoric) bargaining table haggle over who gets a little more of an increasingly smaller pie.

Now SAG thinks the time is right for a strike, or even the possibility of a strike?

I do not pretend to be an expert on the issues separating SAG and the producers. I do not claim that the conglomerates that own Hollywood’s studios are benevolent in their intentions. And I can even accept that at some point, actors might need to stand up to their bosses in order to get some of the concessions they seek—or to simply protect contract principles that have been in place for decades.

But this is not that time.

By even threatening a strike now, SAG’s leadership reinforces the stereotype that all actors are like “30 Rock’s” Jenna and Tracy: Tone-deaf, self-absorbed and completely oblivious to how their actions affect others.