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Networks look for possible upsides

Curtailed spending on pilots is one possibility as TV executives draft plans to replace shows in the face of a strike.

November 05, 2007|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

The nation's major television networks say they are prepared to withstand a strike by the Writers Guild of America lasting three to four months. Some industry executives even believe a strike, although potentially damaging to the business, could carry some side benefits.

If a strike were to extend into February, it would disrupt the TV pilot season, the three-month period when studios make dozens of new shows as part of an expensive annual competition to win a coveted spot on the prime-time schedule of the five broadcast networks.

The television companies collectively spend more than $400 million a year on development and pilot costs even though only a fraction of these shows achieve long-term financial success. TV executives have long complained that the frenetic competition for actors, directors and sound stages doesn't translate into higher-quality television, just higher costs. Some hourlong pilots cost more than $7 million.

So for some TV executives, blowing up pilot season is not such a bad idea.

"Maybe the strike is giving us an excuse to shake it up," Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said at a recent industry luncheon. Changing the way shows are hatched, he said, would be "the only good thing that could come out of a strike."

Writers are to begin picketing today outside studios here and in New York.

As soon as the guild's signs go up, production costs will start to come down, if only temporarily. That would give companies like NBC Universal, whose fourth-place network is struggling to stay profitable, a short-term lift.

Writers Guild leaders point out that these media companies are hugely profitable, earning billions of dollars a year, and that writers just want a more equitable slice of the pie.

"This is a strike for future generations of writers," said Carlton Cuse, an executive producer of "Lost." "It's just a critical point in the evolution of the business."

There are huge risks and downsides for the companies. Now that writers have gone on strike, the networks could see more viewers drift away, perhaps never to return.

Some shows would immediately feel the sting. Late night shows such as "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" would switch to reruns because so many of the jokes are written the day the shows air.

The networks have enough fresh prime-time episodes to last at least through November. Networks typically air reruns and specials in December, when people are getting ready for the holidays. There are likely to be even more December repeats so that the networks can hold onto precious originals.

In January, the broadcasters would run out of new episodes of such favorites as "Desperate Housewives," "CSI: Miami" and "The Office."

Several marquee shows, including Fox's "24" and ABC's "Lost," were set to return in January and February, respectively. But "24" will have only eight or nine of the season's 24 episodes made, while "Lost" producers will have finished half of the 16 episodes ABC ordered.

Privately, network executives talk about shows stashed in their "back pocket." In many instances, the networks have asked their news divisions to deliver news magazines and have ordered a raft of reality shows to plug the gaps.

"The good news for us is that there is always a need for our business," said Chris Coelen, chief executive of RDF USA, which provides "Wife Swap" for ABC and "Don't Forget the Lyrics" for Fox.

NBC has been getting ready with an unscripted show called "Baby Borrowers." CBS has ordered a legal show with former prosecutor Marcia Clark and is casting for a new edition of "Big Brother," which typically runs in the summer. Fox is working on "Smile You're Under Arrest."

"It could look like summer in winter," said Tim Spengler, who oversees media buying for Initiative, a New York advertising firm that represents such major clients as Home Depot and Bayer.

The last time writers stopped working was in 1988. The industry has experienced seismic changes since then. Back then, the Big Three networks -- CBS, NBC and ABC -- were king, entertaining nearly 80% of all U.S. television viewers. To make up for the shortage of shows during that five-month strike, CBS ran movies and ABC dusted off old "Mission Impossible" scripts.

The nascent Fox network experimented with "America's Most Wanted" and "Cops," that are still reliable mainstays.

"If it weren't for the strike, "Cops" might not be on the air today," said the show's producer Morgan Langley.

There were 17 ad-supported cable channels in 1988. Today, there are more than 100 channels. Video games, DVDs and the Internet also have taken away viewers. Digital video recorders, which allow viewers to record shows and fast-forward through commercials, have cut into ratings and jeopardized ad dollars.

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