I was looking around Netflix for something to watch over the weekend and came upon the documentary, “Muscles and Mayhem: An Unauthorized History of American Gladiators.” Remembering the show from the late eighties and early nineties, I found myself sucked into the story, which is surprisingly relevant.
“American Gladiators” involved a bunch of pumped-up people portraying characters with names like Turbo, Gemini, Ice, Lace, Blaze, and Zap, who took on challengers in very physical games (e.g. Joust, Powerball, Assault, Swing Shot). But the documentary makes clear the executives in charge had very little concern for the well-being of the competitors. Being tackled on a barely-carpeted concrete floor or smashing into each other at high speed with no padding took a toll, and the production initially had no medical team to oversee player safety. If any cast member couldn’t compete because of an injury, there would suddenly be a new American Gladiator to take their place.
The team behind “Muscles and Mayhem” brought back the original stars of the show for contemporary interviews, and they were quite candid about the fame, the pain, the partying, the steroid use, and more. But what they also make clear is how they were exploited by the Samuel Goldwyn Studio, which produced and distributed the show.
Once “American Gladiators” became massively popular, executives had no intention of sharing the wealth with the stars, despite money pouring in from merchandise (posters, action figures, lunch boxes, water bottles, video games, and t-shirts) and a live touring show. The Gladiators had signed a bad contract from the beginning, giving rights to their likenesses and everything else to the studio in perpetuity.
After several seasons, some members of the cast tried to renegotiate their deals, but Samuel Goldwyn Jr. told them his father (who had started the studio) never did that and neither would he. Besides, he figured, it’s the show that’s hot, not the people on it.
That was a massive mistake. The Gladiators who rebelled were fired and replaced, but the TV audience — especially younger viewers who loved the stars — rejected the newbies and ratings plummeted the next season. The producers eventually realized their error and tried to bring back a couple of the originals, but the “American Gladiator” image had been so damaged the show was cancelled after its next season.
It was the greed aspect of “Muscles and Mayhem” that had me thinking of the writers and actors who are now on strike in Hollywood, trying to get studio executives to loosen the purse strings in a new contract. There was a time not so long ago when starring on a television series meant being paid to make twenty-two or more episodes a year, with residuals for reruns and syndication. But streaming platforms like Netflix prefer making limited series with six or eight or maybe ten episodes with a smaller team of writers who are only employed for a couple of months.
For many on the creative side, that means a lot less income, no future revenue, and very little health insurance, if any. Meanwhile, the people at the top are rewarded with pay packages in excess of a hundred million dollars each — while at least one has said he’d stay away from the bargaining table to squeeze the writers until they can’t even afford to pay rent.
These are not just issues in the show business community. There’s been a surge in union activity over the last year as the working class has tried to force management in several industries to be more equitable. My brother, Seth, has been writing on his Power At Work blog about how a strike carries a lot of risk for employees:
Striking workers almost always face financial hardships during their time without wages, which can be particularly challenging for those living paycheck-to-paycheck. Most states do not allow strikers to collect unemployment insurance benefits. Even when granted, those benefits are only a fraction of a worker’s weekly pay and they often do not begin immediately. Some unions have strike funds that provide some cash assistance and may pay for health benefits, but they are typically limited, as well.
Strikes can create lasting schisms in communities. While they may garner public support, they can also create tensions between workers and community members who rely on the services or products provided by the striking employees, or simply do not like conflict in their home towns. Strikes often have broader economic implications, affecting the employees of the struck employer’s suppliers and other local businesses, as well as the local economy. The ripple effects of a strike can result in job losses, decreased consumer spending, and overall economic instability in a community.
That may seem a far cry from the efforts of the cast of an action-competition television show to gain a safer employment environment and slightly larger piece of the revenue pie they help create. But the American Gladiators were representative of the large number of American workers considered disposable by short-sighted, greedy owners and executives.