In the hierarchy of things the US public seems not to care about -- the national debt, Paris Hilton's charitable works, former senator Fred Thompson's campaign for president -- the Hollywood screenwriters' strike probably wins hands down.
After negotiations that continued deep into the night were unsuccessful and no delay was agreed upon, on Monday 12,000 members of the Writers Guild of America traded their laptops for picket signs in New York and Los Angeles.
The financial markets, along with the public, have yet to muster much more than a yawn about the authors of much of the content in theaters and on television decided to walk away and wait for a better offer from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
It's been almost 20 years since the last writers' strike, and those who do remember probably recall that everyone managed to get through it with a minimum of trauma. There were still movies to see, television programs to watch, and hey, if Letterman was a little short on jokes, no worries. He'll be back.
The question this time around is different for both the studios and the writers: Will viewers be back?
Just in case you haven't been following it closely -- shocking, that -- the writers announced a strike that began on Monday over the producers' unwillingness to give them what they figure is a fair cut of the so-called new-media revenue and to revisit the issue of compensation for DVDs.
Screenwriters argue that their labors generally create programming that has very high value -- value that would seem to multiply as it spread over more platforms.
Media companies have a story to tell as well: If they are about to make jillions on new media, the markets don't seem to think so.
If the strike is a lengthy one, television will slowly begin to reflect that the writers' room has emptied out. Some talk shows will hit the repeat button immediately; soap operas will dry up; and after a time, some episodic television shows will run out of new material.
That leaves reality programming, sports, news, cooking shows, travelogues, entertainment news shows, documentary programs about animals, antiques and crime -- and that's not counting the movies and shows many of us have backlogged on TiVos, DVRs and Netflix. Oh yes, and the Internet: YouTube isn't going on strike.
So the typical US household will not run out of content any time soon. (Although I will grab a lantern and pitchfork just about the time that the strike threatens to hold up the next plot twist in Lost.)
That would be a problem for the writers.
Market leverage derives from scarcity, and while writers argue that original work is the only way to rise above the clutter, the spread of nonfiction and reality programming -- most of it not covered by contracts -- has made professionally written programs less critical.
"We are in totally uncharted territory right now," said John Rash, author of the Rash Report, a newsletter about television ratings, and an executive at Campbell Mithun, an advertising firm in Minneapolis. "The strike in 1988 was B.C. -- before cable explodes, before computers, before this vast fragmentation and fracturing of the media landscape," he said.
Apart from a reflexive urge to push back at the bean-counters, the writers know that restricting the discussion to legacy technologies is a way of engineering their own obsolescence. But are those digital dollars truly "additive," to use a buzzword from the negotiations, or are they just replacing what is lost as old technologies wither?
Writers, still smarting from giving away the store in terms of video and DVD before the true value of those businesses became apparent, are not about to cave in.
Producers, who have yet to find a revenue model for digital content, do not want to be hamstrung by a costly deal with writers while they try to figure it out.
In the meantime, both sides risk losing another part of the future: young audiences.
For a certain frantic demographic -- call it the Stewart Colbert Nation -- the chickens began to roost on Sunday at 11pm in most places.
Both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are highly topical and rely on dozens of writers to remain so -- writers who became members of the Writers Guild of America in the last year-and-a-half. Both shows planned to switch to repeats immediately -- which, however hilarious you find Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, sort of reduces the appeal of shows that thrive on the annotation of current events.
Laugh all you want, but the news diet of a vast number of younger viewers is about to shrink.
Talkers like Bill O'Reilly and Larry King will continue to bloviate, network news will dutifully report the day's events, and even Jay Leno may be able to fill the hour (although the prospect of his working without snappy cue cards isn't a pleasant one). But younger viewers have come to depend on Stewart for news beyond what's on their Facebook page.
"Some people are able to use those programs as a shorthand to learn about events and see them lampooned at the same time," Rash said, adding: "It is a bad time for Colbert and Stewart to go dark. Something will be lost in the run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire if they are not around."
There are indications that Stewart and Colbert will come back in tweaked form if the strike is a long one, leaning on interviews and other writer-free approaches to keep both programs alive in a very busy political season.
Michael Winship, president of the Writers Guild of America East, is glad that his union brothers now include the staffs of two programs that have a visceral connection with their young, obsessed audiences.
"These two shows are a big source of news for a whole generation that was not around for the 1988 strike," he said.
"Losing Stewart and Colbert is something like losing Cronkite during the Vietnam War. And because they are accessed in any number of ways both on television and on the Web, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are exactly what we are talking about at the bargaining table."
Last week, Jon Stewart addressed the issue on his program, suggesting in his arch way that while a strike looked inevitable, the future that everyone seemed so confused about might actually be at hand.
"So we won't be here, but while we're not here, you can check out all of our content on our new Web site, the DailyShow.com," he said. "Every Daily Show since I got here is on it, free, except for the advertising. So support our advertisers."