DATE February 11, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times on the
right's reaction to McCain now being the presumptive Republican
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Senator John McCain is the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican
Party; yet, over the weekend, he lost the Louisiana primary and the Kansas
caucuses to Mike Huckabee. McCain was booed by some people in the audience
when he spoke Thursday at the annual conservative action political conference,
known by the acronym CPAC. Mitt Romney chose CPAC as the place to announce
his withdrawal from the primary race. CPAC is a conference which has been
hosted by the American Conservative Union since 1974. It brings together
thousands of conservative activists and leaders to set the agenda for the
My guest, David Kirkpatrick, was at the conference, which began Thursday and
ended Saturday. He's a Washington correspondent for The New York Times. He
covered the conservative movement during the 2004 presidential race and still
often writes about the movement.
David Kirkpatrick, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What was the main impression
you took away from CPAC?
Mr. DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, the big event this year for me and everybody
else was Senator John McCain. Senator McCain arrived at CPAC knowing he had
some work to do to kind of shore up his support on the right. And the stakes
for both sides were up significantly because, early in the day at CPAC
Governor Mitt Romney bowed out of the race, all but saying that he was going
to assign his delegates to endorse Senator John McCain and throw his delegates
behind Senator McCain.
So Senator McCain arrived at CPAC a kind of reviled figure on the right who
very much needed the support of the conservative activists who'd gathered
there. So the million dollar question for me and everybody else was, you
know, how was he going to do it. Was he going to be able to convince them
that he was with them, that he could speak their language, that he was on
their side? Was he going to square off against them? How was that going to
come out? And my take-away was he's still got a lot of work to do.
I was frankly surprised by the negativity of the reception, in that when he
spoke, people booed in several times. About half the crowd remained seated,
even during the biggest applause lines in his speech. Pretty much the folks
who did stand up were students carrying "McCain for president" signs, meaning
the students packed into the room by the McCain campaign.
GROSS: What did he say that actually got the boos?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: I think the things that got boos from the crowd were when
he talked about his habit of reaching across the aisle and working with
Democrats. Or when he touched on things like the McCain-Feingold campaign
finance reforms. Those are very unpopular with conservatives.
GROSS: Yeah. Why are conservatives and evangelicals--or at least many
evangelicals--so opposed to McCain?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: You know, it's an interesting question, and it gets at some
of the complexity of the movement. The phrase that comes up again and again
is people say, `You know, as soon as I get ready to start liking Senator
McCain, he sticks his finger in our eye.' It's not any particular policy
position he's taken, it's just that, time and time again, he kind of bucks the
movement, and he maybe even seems like he enjoys it a little bit. He likes to
break ranks with his party. He likes to work with Democrats. He likes to do
his own thing. And it makes people on the right feel like they can't trust
I mean, the specific examples--the most recent one, of course, is his
immigration bill with Senator Kennedy that would have allowed illegal
immigrants to become citizens if they paid a fine and did some other things.
McCain-Feingold, which was campaign finance reform. He voted against a
federal marriage amendment banning same-sex marriage. He supported embryonic
stem cell research. In 2000, when he was running for president, he gave a
speech referring to certain evangelical leaders as "agents of intolerance."
He's voted against a big tax cut that President Bush was pushing. He voted
for background checks for gun sales at gun shows.
All of which--you know, those may seem like small things and it's hard to know
at the rank-and-file level, at the real grass roots, how much that means to
people. I mean, it may be that your average conservative thinks, `John
McCain, POW, he'll cut my taxes. I'm with him.' But at the top of the
movement, if you're really paying close attention, here's a guy who again, and
again, and again sort of sticks it to you in ways that are uncomfortable for
GROSS: Well, McCain has supported the war. He supported the surge. Very
behind President Bush on this. But you say that even his support of the war
isn't going over well among conservatives. Why not?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, that's a kind of a complicated question again. I
mean, when he stands up in front of CPAC and says, `I support the surge. I'm
going to win this war,' the crowd goes wild. That's one of his best lines.
But what's interesting is, if you hang around the CPAC crowd for awhile you
quickly learn that there is by no means unanimity of opinion on the subject of
the initial invasion. A lot of conservatives, especially since the beginning
of the war in Iraq and its aftermath, a lot of conservatives don't like the
idea that the US will be a kind of international police man, that the US will
be exerting its weight in the world as a force for good instead of just trying
to protect our own national interests and borders. And that goes back to the
sort of early history of the modern conservative movement coming out of the
1950s and '60s.
In the '80s, during the Cold War, there was a feeling that communism was a
kind of existential threat to our way of life, and so even conservatives who
had a skeptical view about America's role in the world could get behind the
idea of facing down the Soviet threat wherever it occurred. But now that's
beginning to recede, and so that sort of common call to arms against Soviet
And so now you see it re-emerging on the right, a division between people who
say, `Yeah, we should be using our military strength around the world to solve
problems in places like the Middle East, to make the world a better place.
And others who say, `You know what? Now we can go back to our traditional
conservative skepticism about those uses of American power,' which really are
traditionally liberal. And the word they use for that kind of approach is
John McCain is very much a Wilsonian. He's somebody who thinks that America
can and should be a force for good in the world, and that's why we have the
strength that we do.
GROSS: If, as you put it, communism was a glue that held together different
groups within the Republican Party, is terrorism having a similar effect
within the Republican Party now?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: I would say it's too soon to tell. You definitely hear
more talk on the left than the right about the idea of Islamic fascism, that
there is this ideology, this sort of force in the world out there which, like
communism, is an existential threat to our way of life, that wants to undo us.
But this political landscape is very different from the Cold War in that
throughout the Cold War the left was in a different place. There was a live
debate within the US, you know, going, what?--back to the '30s and '40s.
There were some people who thought communism was, you know, not so bad. Later
on there were people who debated the idea of containment. There were real
differences in opinion about the nature of the communist threat and about what
the US should be doing around the world to oppose communism.
That's not at all the same anymore. After September 11th, there was
widespread unanimity on both sides of the aisle that the US needed to strike
back, that this was a terrible thing. There's no one who will say, `You know
what? Terrorism's got its merits' in the way that there were people who said,
`Socialism, communism, not so bad.' So it doesn't quite have the partisan
political glue effect that the Cold War once did.
GROSS: So what is McCain trying to do to win over evangelicals,
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: It was interesting to see his speech at CPAC. He tried to
remind people a couple times that he is pro-life. He has a consistent voting
record against abortion rights in every instance. This year, as opposed to
2000, he's been a notch more forthcoming talking about his own faith, his own
religious feelings. There's quite a bit of that, actually. If you read his
memoir of his time as a POW, there are plenty of references to his faith and
to prayer services and moving stories about that. But in 2000, he was very
reticent about that, didn't want to talk about it on the campaign trail at
all. Now he's doing that a little bit more. His campaign cut a commercial
about one particularly moving experience he had on Christmas Day, venerating a
cross in the sand with one of his Vietnamese captors. So he's done all that.
But in his speech at CPAC, which was really the moment. I mean, this was it.
Everybody had come waiting to see, you know, `How's he going to do? Is he
going to make peace with the right?' That stuff felt kind of tacked on,
honestly. His first part of the speech, where he talked about wanting to cut
taxes and the areas of common ground that he had with conservatives, he
stumbled a couple times and his heart didn't really seem like it was in it.
He was trying, clearly; but it wasn't until he got to the end of his speech,
when he talked about foreign policy concerns, the war in Iraq, that he really
sort of found his voice and he felt like he was speaking from the heart and
there was a lot of passion in it.
And that squares very much with the perspective that a lot of the people in
the audience had going into this, which is Senator McCain is somebody who
cares a lot about the war in Iraq. He cares a lot about international
affairs, and he doesn't kind of have a burning passion for things like
repealing the estate tax or lowering marginal income tax rates, or, for that
matter, banning same-sex marriage or abortion. So that's his stumbling block.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's a
correspondent in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. In 2004 he
covered the conservative movement during the presidential campaign, and he
still continues to frequently write about the conservative movement. And
we've been talking about the Republican primary campaign and the CPAC
conference that happened over the weekend. That's the Conservative Political
James Dobson, one of the leading evangelical leaders, says he won't endorse
John McCain under any circumstances. He has endorsed Huckabee and he only did
that very recently. He seemed reluctant to endorse Huckabee until now.
Huckabee has had trouble winning over the older evangelical leaders. So what
does the Huckabee endorsement mean?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, if you are an anti-McCain dead-ender, if you are
no-how, no way can you go for McCain, Huckabee is the last game in town.
Huckabee is not going to win. I don't think anyone pretends that he's going
to win the Republican nomination for president except perhaps Governor
Huckabee and his campaign managers. But right now, Huckabee's success--every
time he wins a state--and he won a few over the weekend, and frankly, I'll bet
he wins a few more--every time he wins a state, that makes things harder for
Senator McCain and his conservative critics. Senator McCain needs to--he
needs to make peace with conservatives so that they will be fired up and ready
to support him in the general election. And the better Huckabee does, the
harder that is for him. Because the greater a sense they have that McCain is
embattled, he doesn't have a mandate, and that McCain needs their support.
So when McCain came to CPAC and gave his speech, what one conservative
activist said to me on the way out, `This is like a sort of awkward teenager
who's trying to ask you to the prom. You know he wants to ask you, he just
can't find the right words.' So their take-away from his speech was, `He knows
he needs us, now we've got to see what we can get from this guy.' So a...
GROSS: Yeah, well what do they want to get? What concessions do they want
from John McCain?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, there are a number of things that float around there.
First and foremost, they'd like a vice presidential pick who is young and
stoutly, vigorously conservative. Because that's someone who, eight years
from now, should McCain win, that's someone who eight years from now would be
in a position to become president. Obviously...
GROSS: Does that mean conservative and evangelical?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, it depends on who you ask. I mean, if you are a
social conservative, if you're someone who is a conservative Christian, then
you're going to want some--a like-minded vice presidential pick. If you're a
fiscal conservative, you know, kind of like the anti-tax group The Club for
Growth, then that's less important to you and you want somebody who is going
to be truly committed to scaling back the size of government. It's easy to
find someone who fits both categories, if you want, but neither of those
things is going to help McCain when it comes to winning over moderate or
independent voters in the general election. And so that's the tricky thing
for McCain. So the more Huckabee wins, the more the conservatives say,
`You've got to give us something.' And to the extent that he does, that
becomes harder and harder for him to carry into the general election.
Some of the other things that come up that conservatives say they might to see
from him are, for example, stem cell research. He has said that he supports
federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Since that time, a lot of
technology has developed that shows great promise with adult stem cells, so
there's an easy out for him. He could come out and say, `Look, you know what?
Technology has obviated this issue. There's some people who have moral qualms
about embryonic stem cell research, and guess what? We don't have to do it
anymore because there's another way.' That would be a relatively painless
thing that he could do that would say to conservatives, `You know what? I'm
giving you something here. I really need your support and I understand your
But that's not necessarily Senator McCain's style. And the reason why so many
independents and moderates like him is because of his reputation for really
unflinching independence. So he really is in kind of a tricky place.
GROSS: Right. Because if he makes concessions to conservatives and
evangelicals, there goes the independence that he's admired for.
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, to a certain extent. That's right, to a certain
extent. Now, I'm sure that some of your listeners are thinking, `Well, come
on. Running against a Democratic in the fall, everybody on the right is going
to get behind him.' And that might be true. And the other point is, OK, so
these sort of hard-core activists who have really been paying close attention,
have a lot of grudges that want to hold against Senator McCain, your average
man on the street who voted for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, they don't
really understand the details of this or that embryonic stem cell research
bill, and they didn't care that much about the same-sex marriage amendment
because it was never going to pass, and McCain's various crimes against the
right in terms of compromises on judicial nominees, all that goes over their
So how much did this really mean? And I wondered about that myself. So I've
been paying attention to what Rush Limbaugh has been saying over the last few
days. He was one of the most vocal critics of Senator McCain from the right
before CPAC, and I wanted to see how things have changed on the Limbaugh
program and other talk radio programs since McCain's speech at CPAC and since
he became really clearly the Republican nominee in waiting. And it hasn't
changed that much. What Rush has been saying is, `You know, McCain, Obama,
Clinton, it's all the same. So we need to get out there and try to elect
conservatives in Congress.' That's something for the Republican Party, but for
McCain it's not great. Because, you know, there aren't that many districts
where there are going to be really closely contested senator or congressional
races, and they're not necessarily the districts where a Republican
presidential candidate needs to compete.
And so so far the signs are that the voices of the right, the kind of
spokesmen and cheerleaders for the conservative movement are going to be--it's
possible that they could be carping and criticizing the Republican nominee
right up until November. So even if the grass roots doesn't, in their own
mind, understand why conservatives don't like McCain or doesn't really care
that much about that stuff, it's going to create a kind of--or it could
potentially create a kind of ugly background noise for him that he needs to
worry about all the way up until November.
GROSS: It looks like there's no mathematical way that Huckabee could win the
election, yet he's staying in the race. At CPAC, Mitt Romney officially
withdrew from the race, saying, `If I fight on in my campaign all the way to
the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign. And,
frankly, I would be making it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would
win. Frankly, in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part
of aiding a surrender to terror.' So he's basically saying he didn't want to
fight McCain anymore and divide the party because that would make it less
likely the party would win.
So what do you think are Huckabee's motivations for staying in the race?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, Governor Huckabee says that the Democratic Party is
hardly united at this point. There's still a live race going on for who's
going to be the Democratic nominee. And so it's not that much of a setback to
the Republicans that they're having a continued primary race.
The other difference between Governor Huckabee and Governor Romney is Governor
Romney was running an expensive campaign. He had a big infrastructure, a lot
of advisers. It was costly for him to go on. And the victories he won, he
won by spending heavily and heavily out of his own pocket for advertising.
Governor Huckabee is not that way at all. I mean, that means that, for
Governor Romney to continue, it was expensive and expensive to him personally.
So in addition to the party loyalty reasons he mentioned, there's also a kind
of a practical cost-benefit analysis for Governor Romney.
For Governor Huckabee, that cuts in a very different way. He was running a
very cheap campaign. He wasn't spending very much month to month. He didn't
have much money for ads. He didn't have a big field team to go out and drum
up crowds. He was basically relying on free media and his wits. And he's
really won an astonishing number of states given his low resources.
So I think it's certainly going to make him a stronger political figure going
forward that he continues to stay in at least for a while. I mean, I think
the time will come when Senator McCain formally has the 1,191 delegates he
needs, and then Governor Huckabee will probably bow out, and I'm sure at that
point he'll bow out graciously. But until then, he's adding to his
credibility and his stature in the future when it comes to future political
races or even a kind of internal conversation over what should be the agenda
of the Republican Party.
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Kirkpatrick, a Washington
correspondent for The New York Times. He covered the conservative movement
during the 2004 presidential race and so often writes about the movement. He
attended the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, which was held
last Thursday through Saturday in Washington. We're talking about divisions
within the Republican party over the presumptive nominee, John McCain.
What's the Republican leadership thinking of McCain now? And what's their
strategy? Ken Mehlman, who managed President Bush's re-election campaign and
then became the head of the Republican National Committee, he endorsed McCain
Thursday evening. At the CPAC conference President Bush said, `We will soon
have a nominee who will carry the conservative banner into this election and
beyond,' but he didn't mention McCain by name. But over the weekend on Fox
News he called McCain a true conservative and said, `I think that if John is
the nominee he's got some convincing to do to convince people that he is a
solid conservative, and I'll be glad to help him if he's the nominee because
he is a conservative.' So is the Republican leadership starting to fall behind
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, if you're a Republican partisan, that's a no brainer.
It's time to get behind McCain full stop. I mean, he's going to be the
nominee. If you want to win in 2008, then you want McCain to win. And so to
the extent that you are an associate of the Republican Party, that's where
The thing about the conservative movement, and one of the reasons why I think
it's had the vitality that it's had over the last few decades is it kind of
stands apart from the party itself. The conservative movement within the
Republican Party still remembers the days when it was on the outside taking
shots at what it considered to be establishment Republicans in the line of
sort of Rockefeller, Ford, Nixon. A lot of them still see themselves engaged
in a battle, first and foremost, for the soul of the party, and so they resist
thinking only in terms of party loyalty and consider it a victory in some
sense if they can be sure the Republican Party stays true to their principles,
even if it goes down in the general election. And I think that's one of the
things which distinguishes the left from the right at the moment. I don't
know if that might be changing or not.
GROSS: Ann Coulter, who is a professional provocateur, said that she'd rather
vote for Hillary Clinton than vote for McCain. Are you hearing a lot
of--she's always very far out, but are you hearing other sentiments like that
basically saying "sit this one out"?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: No, that's bananas. She is really just trying to get
attention to that comment. And she got a lot of attention, much of it
negative, from the folks at CPAC, because certainly there is no love for
Senator Clinton from among rank and file conservatives. I don't think there's
anybody encouraging people to stay home. I know Dr. James Dobson of Focus on
the Family has said that, out of conscience, he could not vote for McCain.
But he's never gone so far as to say `you all out there ought to stay home,
too.' I mean, it's a blow to McCain that he's saying that and that he's
indicating he's not going to get involved and encourage people to turn out,
which he did to great effect in 2004 for President Bush. And it's a blow to
McCain that Rush Limbaugh is saying things like `Hillary, Obama or McCain, it
makes no difference.'
But come November I think we'll hear Rush being quite critical of whoever the
Democratic nominee is. There are things short of supporting McCain that
conservatives can still do to make clear that they think the Democrat is a bad
bet. So we'll probably see some of that.
GROSS: Meanwhile, when you were at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action
Conference, what were you hearing about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: This conference was still preoccupied by the Republican
race. You know, one of the fun things about CPAC is you go where they have
a--they have an extensive gallery of souvenirs, exhibitors selling various
tchotchke, which is usually very vicious towards prominent Democrats of the
day. You know, Senator Kennedy, if there's no one else running for national
office. But if there is a Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Kerry or
Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, so there was some of that. But there was
even some T-shirts criticizing Senator McCain. So the gang wasn't really
focused yet on just going after the Democrat. And it's also harder now
because we don't yet know which Democrat to criticize.
GROSS: What did the anti-McCain T-shirt say?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: There was one T-shirt that stuck in my mind because I
believe it said, `I'd rather be waterboarded than vote for Senator McCain.'
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yeah.
GROSS: So what's the buzz about President Bush among conservatives now?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, President Bush spoke, I believe it was at 7:15 Friday
morning, and he packed the house and they loved him. President Bush is still
very popular with the conservative base. And so, you know, certainly nobody
was critical of President Bush at this CPAC. In fact, they were less critical
of President Bush this CPAC than they have been in previous CPACs, in part
because he's growing less and less relevant, I think, as his term comes to a
GROSS: If McCain is so unpopular among many evangelicals and fiscal
conservatives, how did he end up being the presumptive nominee?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Luck. Luck is certainly a factor there. He benefitted
from the fact that Huckabee and Romney were dividing the conservative vote,
and neither Huckabee nor Romney is precisely perfect. Romney troubles a lot
of people because of his past as a more liberal politician in the state of
Massachusetts. Some evangelicals and others are troubled by his membership in
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He's a Mormon. Huckabee, on
the other hand, leaves a lot of fiscal conservatives or hawks cold. So
neither one of them was able to sort of unite the right, but together they got
more votes than Senator McCain has. Senator McCain has gotten a plurality of
Republican primary votes, and he's won in a few of the states that award their
delegates on a winner-take-all basis, which gives him a big lead. Those
happen to be the more moderate states. But he has not won a majority of
Republican primary-goers. So some of it is luck.
There's also a kind of a star factor with McCain. You can't get too far
without remember the fact that he was a POW tortured in Vietnam for five years
and refused early release in order to keep solidarity with his fellow
prisoners and his country. And I think that's impressive to a lot of
conservatives. That's just impressive to a lot of people.
GROSS: Well, David Kirkpatrick, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: It's always a pleasure.
GROSS: David Kirkpatrick is a Washington correspondent for The New York
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: David Bianculli discusses proposed contract terms
for movie and TV writers and when the strike will end
TERRY GROSS, host:
There's good news for all of us who are tired of reruns and want to see a real
Oscar ceremony. It looks like movie and TV writers will be back at work
Wednesday after a strike which began November 5th. The Writers Guild of
America negotiating committee unanimously and unconditionally recommended the
terms of the new proposed contract. The ratification vote will take place
over the next few weeks. But tomorrow writers will vote on whether to end the
strike during the ratification process, and they're expected to vote yes, end
it. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has been covering the strike for his Web
David, I know you've been following the strike really closely. What's the
most important gains the writers seem to have won based on this tentative
Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: They were focused most on getting some sort of share of
revenue out of the Internet. They had gotten almost nothing when VHS came
around, and they hadn't anticipated the strength of the home video boom, so
they didn't want to get caught by the Internet as it grew. So that was what
the major sticking point of this whole negotiation was. They wanted a piece
of that pie.
GROSS: So what kind of piece did they get?
Mr. BIANCULLI: They get, in the third year of a three-year contract, they
get 2 percent of whatever the profits are at that point. How they're
defined--you know, gross, net, how they're checked--I don't think anybody's
clear on it at this point. They're treating it as a huge victory. With the
VHS stuff they got four cents on the dollar. With this they're getting 2
percent. I'm not so sure it's a huge victory. I'm just glad everybody's
GROSS: Now, I know like when I watch a TV show or even like a clip from "The
Daily Show" on the Internet, there's a commercial that you can't fast forward
past that you have to watch first. I'm assuming that the producers are
getting money for that commercial. Is that an example of the kind of revenue
that the writers want a take of?
Mr. BIANCULLI: Well, there's two types. First of all, if you're watching
that with a commercial attached, you're watching it on the official Comedy
Mr. BIANCULLI: Lots of people are just taking what they have recorded and
throwing it up on YouTube where there's no commercials, there's no revenue.
And so you have the user-based YouTube model, which is, `I got it, it's free,
I just want to share it with you for free.' And that's a really weird thing
because somebody's got to pay for it originally for it to exist. On the
official sites, yes, you will have advertising or some sort of streaming, and
that's the sort of revenue that they know exists, the writers do, and of which
they want a piece.
GROSS: Now, why were the producers so reluctant to give the writers a
percentage of the profits? Because if the producers say, well, there's no
money to be made on the Internet, then the writers will be getting a
percentage of zero, which means the producers wouldn't have to give anything
Mr. BIANCULLI: When we're talking producers here, and this is the term that
they're all using, we're actually talking giant studio heads. We're talking
the Daddy Warbuckses--is that the plural of Daddy Warbucks--of Hollywood, and
so they don't want to give anybody anything. You know, just because they have
this giant, giant pie it doesn't necessarily mean they want to allocate a fair
share. So they see the Internet--nobody knows what's going to happen with the
Internet in the next five years, but everybody knows something's going to
happen and everybody suspects it's a gold mine. So it's like the California
gold rush: You don't know which claim is going to pan out, and this is not a
big sharing time.
GROSS: Was there a lot of in-fighting within the Writers Guild about what to
demand, what to give in on and what direction to head in, and how long to hold
out? I mean, it was very hard on a lot of the writers and on everybody else
who was out of work because the writers were on strike.
Mr. BIANCULLI: Right. The Writers Guild--the interesting thing about them
is that only 10 percent of the writers in the Writers Guild are actively
writing television. Ninety percent either don't have work, can't find work or
have retired. And the older writers that aren't working now, their major
concern is how they'll be paid for residuals, especially in new media, because
that's going to be a new money stream when the old money stream is drying up.
Then you have the young writers who--the ones who are show runners now or on
writers' staffs now, they really are losing work and losing creativity, and
their shows may be cancelled because they're not going to come back. So
there's two different groups at risk playing for two different things. But in
a sense they're all--the prize that they all had their eyes on is new media.
So they were in agreement for once.
GROSS: And the residuals, it's like when your program is re-run, you get a
residual. You get a payment on that rerun.
Mr. BIANCULLI: Right. And it took a long time for that contract to be
written in a fair sense just in terms of syndication for broadcast network
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Mr. BIANCULLI: Then there was cable. And now, you know, we're jumping to
the Internet, which is a complete unknown territory.
GROSS: So writers want something similar to the residuals they've
traditionally gotten for reruns. They want that to apply to old and new shows
on the Internet.
Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes. And as a writer, as a journalist, I sort of get that
GROSS: Now, what's some of the fallout of the strike in terms of how it's
affected not only TV but the larger entertainment industry?
Mr. BIANCULLI: The biggest thing is that--the reason why it's settled now,
there was like this perfect storm. Really, if it wasn't settled--or I'm
talking in the past tense and, you know, the real vote is coming up tomorrow.
But everybody that I'm talking to and everything that I'm reading says that
it's going to be over. And the reason is, by ending this week you can still
salvage the Oscars, you can still salvage a sense of pilot season, you can
still have up-fronts, which are when the networks present the pilots they've
chosen to advertisers. At least in some semblance you can have up-fronts.
Fox has already said they will have up-fronts. And then you can have a May
sweeps, which is important for smaller stations and for the networks to get
momentum into the fall and the fall season. If you don't have that now,
everything falls apart and changes.
GROSS: Are we going to have a regular new fall season?
Mr. BIANCULLI: That's my hope. It won't be quite so regular. It'll
be--this year things are going to be slimmed down a little bit for the May
sweeps and even for the fall season. But the question is, what happens after
that? If the model that they use this year just to keep going, if they say
`we don't have to make 100 pilots anymore to choose which six or eight we're
going to put on as a network.' You know, I mean, you know, as an industry they
can say `we can do it with less.' And if you do it with less once, then maybe
you do it next year.
GROSS: Talk a little bit more about that, about how the networks were forced
to change during the strike and what changes that might lead to long-term.
Mr. BIANCULLI: Well, they couldn't order as many scripts, or won't be able
to order as many scripts, and so that self selects the number of pilots you
make. And they're talking about even going to series without pilots or just
doing slimmer presentations. But if you have a choice of a hundred shows or a
hundred scripts to get your line-up, the chances are greater that you're going
to take some risks that might pay off big. This year "Pushing Daisies," my
favorite new show of the fall, wouldn't, I don't think, have gotten through
the process when there were only, you know, 20 percent or 30 percent as many
pilots or scripts approved. So I worry about the long-time creativity if they
truncate the pilot process.
GROSS: It seems like one of the casualties of the strike was "24." My
understanding is that they just kind of decided to forget it for the whole
season even though some of the episodes were shot.
Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah, they shot eight. But the idea was, the big appeal of
"24" and the big success of "24" is that it runs nonstop. Once they figured
that that was the model, they didn't want to mess with that. So they figured
they'll just hold "24" off. They'll film the rest of them as soon as the
writers' strike ends so that the actors don't get released from their
contracts. But now "24" won't show up until 2009 when "American Idol" comes
around for its next January play. It also allowed Kiefer Sutherland to serve
his jail time, so that was just--which he did during the writer's strike.
That's just a nice bit of timing.
GROSS: Now, the Screen Actors Guild contract is up for renewal in a few
Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes.
GROSS: Is there likely to be a screen actors strike?
Mr. BIANCULLI: No. Actually the Screen--the actors have, in effect, gone on
strike along with the writers. If it wasn't for the actors being as strong as
they were in support of the writers, the writers wouldn't have gotten this
agreement. The Oscars would not have been so threatened if it wouldn't have
been written as an awards show. It's the actors not showing up. So the
actors getting what they wanted for the writers will have a favored nations
clause. So they're going to--I really do not think that the actors will be
striking in June.
GROSS: So tell me some more about how the writers' contract is going to be
good for the actors.
Mr. BIANCULLI: Because the actors sided with the writers and honored their
picket lines, which meant that, like the Golden Globes almost, you know, it
didn't exist. No actors would show up. So the writers got to show some clout
by saying, `look, we can stop the Golden Globes.' Now, the Golden Globes is
not the Oscars. And the producer's side, you know, NBC which had the rights
to telecast the Golden Globes, made a mistake, I think, by saying, `well,
we'll go ahead and we'll just put on our telecast anyway and just have
essentially a glorified press conference where we just give the announcement
of the winners.' Well, it was horrible. Everybody made fun of it. And so
nobody wants that with the Oscars. So by fighting and sticking with the
writers, the actors are getting, you know--the writers will get a better
contract, therefore the actors get that same contract.
GROSS: So the actors will get the same kind of residuals that the writers
Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes. Yeah, the actors are in the best position of all by
coming last and by being the most visible.
GROSS: My guest is our TV critic, David Bianculli. We'll talk more about the
end of the writer's strike and what it means after a break. This is FRESH
GROSS: My guest is our TV critic, David Bianculli, and we're talking about
what looks like the end of the writers' strike.
Since writers get residuals for reruns, reruns have been very helpful to
writers. In the Internet era, when a lot of TV shows are already being shown
and probably more will be shown on TV, is that likely to affect reruns and
therefore the residuals the writers get for reruns? Is that part of their
Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah, it affects it in two ways. In the one way there are
fewer places on local television, on broadcast television for reruns to
appear. You know, it's not the same as a generation ago when we came home
from school in the afternoons and all those programs were all right there.
Now it's, you know, you see "People's Court" and that kind of reality stuff in
the afternoons instead. So there are fewer places to get that revenue stream.
So the question is, will it be replaced by the Internet? And a lot of
Internet sources haven't made the deal or show stuff for free. So they are
worried about it and that's what they're focused on. The solution isn't
clear. Yes, reruns are going away on broadcast television, but broadcast
television is going away. The world is changing.
GROSS: One of the things the writers wanted but did not get in the new
contract is jurisdiction over reality shows and animation.
Mr. BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So in other words, the people who write for the reality shows and the
animated shows aren't covered by this contract. And I guess I don't
understand why they're not considered writers, why they're not represented by
Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah, it's a weird caste system. With the reality shows,
this is a form that didn't really exist before 1999 in any formal way. So
when the first ones came up it was like, well, there's not really writing that
goes in there. You don't have to be a guild. And then when it ballooned so
quickly there was initially some resentment, you know, among different camps
of writers about whether they should be admitted.
And with the animators, that I haven't understood for a long time. I don't
understand why the scripts for "The Simpsons" can't compete as Best Comedy in
the Emmys against shows like "The Office." But they don't. They have to have
their little separate category. Eventually that may be corrected, but I think
everybody understood early on that this wasn't the major issue at this time.
GROSS: You know, I think that the writers' strike is such an interesting
counterbalance to the whole idea of, you know, information should be free.
Mr. BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: The Internet should be free. And now we're seeing like labor
basically saying, but wait a minute, people need to be paid for their work.
And if information is free on the Internet, what happens to the writers? What
happens to the musicians whose work is just being given away on it?
Mr. BIANCULLI: It's like authors--I remember, you know, Charles Dickens and
Mark Twain used to have these sorts of problems when books that they wrote for
their countries were taken by other countries and just reprinted, and just
said, `well, for our audience it's completely different.' He says, `Well, no,
they wouldn't exist if I didn't write them so I deserve a cut no matter where
you sell it.' And we're not talking about books anymore, but it's the same
idea. If these writers created these shows, they should get paid for them
whenever someone sees them, wherever someone sees them.
GROSS: David, one of the things you do on your Web site, tvworthwatching.com,
is have picks every day for the best stuff to watch on television, old and
Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes.
GROSS: So what should we watch tonight?
Mr. BIANCULLI: If it wasn't for Turner Classic Movies, it would be much
harder to write about TV worth watching. It has been during the strike. And
I think it was last Saturday where all six of the picks were old movies.
There was no currently generated television that was worth it. Either the new
shows like "Cashmere Mafia" or "Lipstick Jungle," or "Lipstick Mafia"--I've
gotten them confused--aren't worth watching as new shows, or there are all
these reality shows like "My Dad Can Beat up Your Dad If He's Taking a Lie
Detector Test." I mean, I just, I want regular television back. It may never
come back in the form I want it to, but I'm tired of this.
GROSS: So what should I watch tonight?
Mr. BIANCULLI: Well, my favorite of my favorites tonight, there's two of
them. There's "It Happened One Night," which is that great old Frank Capra
movie with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. That's good on any night,
especially on slow TV night.
GROSS: That's on Turner Classic Movies?
Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes. And then on Country Music Television there's--tonight's
edition of "Crossroads" is a concert with Alison Kraus and Robert Plante, and
that's a really interesting pairing.
GROSS: Right. Well, David, thanks for stopping by. Really good to talk with
Mr. BIANCULLI: All right, you too. Thanks for having me on.
GROSS: David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic and writes about television
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with music by Dengue Fever, a band
inspired by Cambodian pop music of the '60s and '70s. The Cambodian pop music
was inspired by American pop that was broadcast during the Vietnam War on
Armed Forces radio.
Dengue Fever was founded by brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman. I just recorded
an interview with them which we'll hear sometime soon. The lead singer of
Dengue Fever, Chhom Nimol, comes from a famous family of Cambodian singers.
She now lives in LA. This song is from Dengue Fever's new album, "Venus on
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. CHHOM NIMOL: (Foreign language sung)
(End of soundbite)
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