When critics talk about movies or TV shows, they mostly treat them as self-contained texts to be described, interpreted, and “read.” This way of thinking similarly dominates the way most of the audience thinks about the work. If anyone talks about the production side, it is usually from a managerial perspective: the eccentricities of the director, how many millions production cost in total, what the show-runner is like, big casting decisions, and so on.
As with any consumer products, workers are made invisible here: you don’t often hear about key grips, production assistants or electricians. Even in the rare instances where a writer does speak to the labor conditions at work in some piece of visual media, it is usually as an aside, or as a separate valence of critique. Labor conditions don’t exist as an external issue: they’re only significant insofar as they help dictate what appears on the screen. But what appears on the screen, in fact, has a huge impact on many aspects of film and TV labor.
Consider special visual effects. CGI doesn’t only make previously impossible images possible, it also makes certain kinds of images inevitable. The technology actually determines how TV and movies get made, and the kinds of stories that get told. Much of the way modern blockbusters look and feel is based around management figuring out how to screw workers—a reactionary anti-labor bias is literally contained within the aesthetics of blockbuster cinema, in individual shots, and in the imagery itself.
Massive Hollywood spectacle has been the name of the game since D. W. Griffith, and million-dollars-per-minute action set pieces go back to Star Wars. The big climax involving hundreds of swarming aliens or Captain America smashing the engine out of a helicarrier is going to require some CGI. But maybe you’ve noticed a bit of special-effects mission-creep: how often films these days use green-screen and digital motion—not just for climactic 3D battles, but for dialogue scenes, for exposition or romantic side plots. One reason is that even the simplest live-action shots require electricians, best boys, truckers, set builders, location scouts—union workers, every one. CGI does away with an awful lot of that.
Although using CGI often means it takes more people to get the same effect, special-effect workers are not unionized, and most animating labor is now being outsourced overseas. CGI is dirt-cheap when compared to hiring all those pesky unionized workers to achieve a similarly amazing effect. In general, talk about CGI focuses on how expensive it is, but that’s a bit of a canard; the number of workers and man-hours Hollywood is saving for the money it spends on CGI is through the roof. Furthermore, despite how much money is spent on movie production, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb that, these days, at least half of that production-cost total goes to marketing. So actual production costs are way down, when considered as a percentage of overall film budgets.
Aside from CGI, another, very different way that management-labor struggles have shaped the content of our culture is reflected in the rise of reality television. When reality TV first came to major prominence, in the mid- and late-1990s, critics spilled endless ink bemoaning a dumbing down of American culture represented therein. Such critiques always pointed their barbs, either more or less subtly, at the consuming public, when the barbarism of reality TV really emerged out of television management’s fear of writers’ strikes.
While aspects of reality TV were present as early as 1950, in game shows like What’s My Line or To Tell The Truth, the first reality shows as we would recognize them didn’t air until 1989. And they emerged as a direct result of 1988’s massive writers’ strike, the longest in U.S. history. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike over residuals and creative rights in March of 1988, and the strike lasted 155 days. TV stations were caught showing reruns and whatever sports content they could drum up, and the strike resulted in drastically lower ratings. Industry-wide, the strike cost $500 million.
Hoping never to get caught in the same situation again, Fox commissioned Cops explicitly in response to the possibility of another strike. Cops is perhaps the first (and now the longest running) reality TV show. The irony of a show about cops developing as a way for management to scab in case of a strike and as the birth of reality TV should be lost on no one.
The next big reality hit, The Real World, was also directly designed to work for cheap by forgoing those horrible expensive creative workers. Designed to glom onto the success of teen dramas like Melrose Place and Beverly Hills: 90210, as Meredith Blake wrote on the show’s twentieth anniversary,
MTV wanted to develop its own scripted soap opera but quickly discovered that paying writers, actors, costume designers, and make-up artists costs lots and lots of money. A much cheaper option, it turned out, was casting a bunch of “regular people” to live in an apartment and taping their day-to-day lives.
Of course, as everyone knows, there is basically nothing unscripted about “unscripted” television, where specific reactions, dramas and romances are coaxed out of “contestants” by producers and writers, and where hours upon hours of raw footage are painstakingly edited into tight narrative units by creative minds. But TV production companies have used reality TV’s status as psuedo-documentary as a legal loophole to avoid employing union workers or paying union rates.
People bemoaning the excessive use of special effects or the stupidity of reality television, then, shouldn’t focus their acrimony at the viewing public, but should rather put their efforts into supporting struggles by cinema and TV workers to stop producers’ abusive practices. For the last two years, visual effects artists have demonstrated outside the Oscars, but film critics rarely cover these protests or the contents of their demands, perhaps considering them outside of their purview. The WGA is now successfully bringing many reality TV shows under writing contracts, in an attempt to improve the legal situation surrounding reality television, one program at a time.
These struggles don’t just affect the lives of the workers; they directly affect what kinds of movies, shows, and images appear on our screens. The political and cultural force of screen images do not emerge whole-cloth from the minds of the directors, writers, and cinematographers who receive credit for them, but are also underwritten by the labor practices that produce them.
It just so happens that two aspects of visual media—CGI and reality TV—that most misrepresent “reality” were both directly influenced by managerial strategies and labor-cost-cutting. And when the owners and managers have more say, through their labor practices, in what gets called “reality,” it’s often reality that suffers.