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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Reality TV: Maximize Profits With Discount Entertainment

Reality TV: Maximize Profits With Discount Entertainment

In the entertainment industry, it can truly be said that everything old is new again. From the beginning of the film industry to the current contract negotiations, studio executives have attempted to keep the lion share of the profits, while denying the necessity or importance of the skilled workers and talent that make the industry possible. The movement towards reality shows is just latest in the long line of attempts to devalue industry professionals in order to keep salaries and benefits low.

The American film industry was created by pioneers who weren't thinking about changing the world, but how to make a quick buck. Nickelodeon owners quickly learned that the true money was to be made by producing films instead of just showing them. The ruthless competition between the studios eventually led to the top nine forming the Motion Pictures Patient Company, which signed an exclusive contract for the film stock produce by the George Eastman factory. The contract created a monopoly that not only controlled who could produce films, but also which films could be made and where the films could be shown. Anyone failing to meet the Trust, as the Motion Picture Patient Company came to be known, was either excluded from the industry or found themselves to be the target of violent attacks.

The strangle hold the Trust held on the business cascaded throughout the industry. Independent film producers were denied access to film stock made in the United States. Although they could buy stock from other countries, they also had additional difficulties with processing the film. In addition, the Trust was known to use strong arm tactics to shut down offices and destroy sets. In spite of public interest, on-screen talent was considered easily replaceable by the studios and was listed only by their character name in the credits. By limiting the information, studios prevented the actors from building a fan base that would give her or him financial or creative leverage. Distributors were required not only pay a fee to distribute Trust films, but they were also limited to showing only films produced by the Trust studios. To do other would bring down the Trust’s wrath. Not only would films be withheld, but their Nickelodeon would be subject to the same violence as the filmmakers. Between the anti-trust court battles and the influx of foreign film stock, the Motion Picture Patents Company was busted in 1917, clearing the way not only for independent film makers but for the actors and production staff to start receiving their due.

The independents were not only more willing to take risks on subject matter, but they saw the profit in creating a star system. They realized that in the short run it would cost more in salaries, but in the long run the profits would be much greater. Signing actors to exclusive contracts insured that their fan base would also stay loyal to the studio. Although the stars gained in notoriety, they lost independence. Morality clauses in the contracts gave the studio executive a great deal of control over their private as well as professional lives. Bound by contracts, actors were assigned roles based availability instead of desire to play the role or compatibility for the part. Contract actors received a weekly paycheck whether or not they worked; therefore, the studios used them as frequently as possible, even if the connection between role and actor had to be forced.

When the Supreme Court ruled that the ownership of theaters and film distribution was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, the studio contracts was brought to an end. Having to compete for theatrical screens forced the studios to limit the number of movies they released a year and increase the quality of the productions. Instead, cast and crew were hired for individual projects. No longer held by the rigid contract system, actors, directors, producers and the technical crew were able to not only chose projects, but also negotiate the terms of their contracts. Whether on-screen or behind the scenes, the more popular the talent, the more control she or he has in determining the terms of the agreement.

In response to the increasing competition of networks and entertainment venues, the networks have created cheaper ‘reality” shows that do not focus on professional talent, storylines or staging. Although reality shows have been around since radio, it wasn’t until the 2000s that they became highly prolific. The shows feature ordinary people in situations that have little to do with reality; instead the shows have become a hybrid of games shows and dramas, as the participates compete against each other for prizes. Using exotic locations or sets, the audience becomes voyeurs as they are giving glimpses behind scenes. Even with million dollar prizes, these shows are cheaper to produce than those with skilled artisans.

The star system has come full circle as once again studio executives chose to use unknown players as a way of streamlining costs so that they may retain more of the profits. Instead of improving the quality of the shows to increase revenues, they chose to produce and promote entertainment shows of lower quality both in content and production values. By giving ordinary folk fifteen minutes of fame, the studios undermine the guilds and unions of the entertainment industry, thereby increasing the power of the studios to not only control but also manipulate the industry. The movement away from professional talent back to the nameless performers is a tactic taking straight from the Motion Pictures Patient Company’s hand book as they once again chose quantity over quality.

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