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Producers prepare for possible strike

ENTERTAINMENT

Schedules for TV shows and movies are moved up ahead of contract talks with writers.

April 24, 2007|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

Gary Scott Thompson, writer and executive producer of the NBC show "Las Vegas," won't be taking a summer hiatus.

Instead of enjoying his usual three months off, he and his colleagues have been asked to write scripts and shoot most of next season's episodes, presumably as a hedge against a potential Hollywood writers' strike late this year. Starting Monday, new production for "Las Vegas" starts -- three months earlier than usual -- with the goal of shooting 18 or 22 episodes by fall.

The show "will be strike-proof," Thompson said.

Anticipating a possible walkout, networks and studio executives are starting to take steps to keep production pipelines flowing. The contingency plans include pushing up shooting schedules, ordering more reality TV programs and renegotiating with writers to turn in their film scripts earlier than usual.

"They're protecting their long-range business interests," said chief studio negotiator J. Nicholas Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

The early preparations come three months before what are expected to be highly contentious contract talks between producers and writers, with the central issue being how writers are paid when their work is shown over the Internet.

Guild leaders have alleged that studios are trying to scare writers by suggesting they are stockpiling scripts and shows. There has been little evidence of a large-scale stockpiling like there was in 2001, when fear of strikes by actors and writers caused a major acceleration of production.

"We've never seen stockpiling to be a significant negotiating strategy," said Chuck Slocum, assistant executive director of the Writers Guild of America, West. "We don't see any reason a deal cannot be reached and we look forward to negotiating to that end."

Nonetheless, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" has started shooting its ninth season, two months earlier than usual.

"I firmly believe that the potential for a strike is much greater and more ominous than many people are saying," said Dick Wolf, the show's executive producer. "Therefore, we're going to make as many episodes as possible before a strike takes place."

Senior executives from the major studios met with Counter last week to discuss their strategies for negotiations, which will begin July 16. The current contract expires Oct. 31.

Rival networks and studio executives have been keeping their contingency plans under wraps not only from writers but also one another.

Although none would publicly discuss their plans, several Hollywood executives privately acknowledged that they were preparing for what could be the first writers' strike since 1988.

Their plans include having some shows come back early to shoot additional episodes that could air during a strike and pushing up production schedules of midseason shows to as early as July instead of their usual September start.

Networks typically decide which shows they're going to pick up just before the key advertising sales period in May and June. But this year has seen an unusually large number of early pickups, evidence not only of changes in the television industry but also strike preparations, analysts say.

"There are clear signs that networks are preparing their fall schedules as early as possible as a hedge against a possible strike," said Carolyn Finger, vice president of TVtracker.com, an Internet-based research and consulting service.

Network business affairs executives are combing their libraries to identify which shows they have the rights to rebroadcast and to compile alternative schedules jammed with movies, news programs, reality fare and game shows.

Hit shows such as Fox's "American Idol" are not only hugely popular, but they are also cheaper to produce than scripted programs. And most reality shows aren't covered under the Writers Guild contracts despite efforts by the union to organize the booming sector.

This season saw 56 unscripted series across all the broadcast networks, up from 51 last year, according to TVtracker.com. CBS has five game show pilots in production, including shows hosted by comedian Drew Carey and MSNBC talk show host Tucker Carlson.

"The ramped-up reality slate is part of our regular program development for summer, fall and midseason programming, but these projects could be utilized if a strike does occur," CBS spokesman Chris Ender said.

Film studios also have begun making their own strike preparations. Studio executives are more worried about the prospect of an actors strike in 2008 that could shut down production and already are adjusting filming schedules to ensure movies wrap before June 30 of next year, when the Screen Actors Guild contract expires. Pulling the plug on films in mid-production is expensive.

Among the most aggressive is 20th Century Fox, which has renegotiated with certain film writers to turn in their scripts earlier than usual as part of a plan to accelerate production.

As for "Las Vegas," Thompson said he and his colleagues weren't sore about working through the summer.

"Everyone's worried about a potential strike," he said, "so they're happy to be working."

richard.verrier@latimes.com

Times staff writers Lorenza Munoz, Martin Miller and Claudia Eller contributed to this report.

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