A strike, a sweep and a changing TV industry

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I was sitting at a red light Tuesday, staring at a large billboard for "Viva Laughlin" perched on a gas station roof. The CBS musical drama had been canceled the day before after two dismal airings.

It was sad to see a marketing campaign outlive the show it promoted. It also was sad to see the yearlong efforts of dozens of people making a new series dashed in less than a week. Then I looked beyond the billboard, to the red-grayish halo above the mountains on the horizon where the California wildfires were raging, destroying in a flash people's homes and their memories. That put the demise of "Laughlin" in perspective. It also was a reminder of the destruction of another kind that is looming on the horizon for the TV industry this week.

While there has been some progress in the negotiations during the past two weeks with concessions by the studios, a crippling writers strike in November still is a real possibility. The grim significance of Nov. 1, the date when WGA members could walk out if no last-minute deal is struck, has completely overshadowed the fact that Nov. 1 also marks the beginning of the November sweep this year.

That's probably because the introduction of the People Meters last year pretty much rendered "sweeps" obsolete. Or because big-event sweep movies, miniseries, specials and stunt guest stars are a thing of the past. Still, the kickoff of the November sweep is a good time to draw a bottom line on how the networks' new series have fared this fall.

Chalk it up to prestrike jitters as networks are uncertain how long they might have to go without new scripted product or to the complicated new ratings measuring system wherein nets have to wait weeks to find out exactly how many people watched their shows, but "Laughlin" has been the only scripted casualty so far this season. By this point last year, three new scripted series were history: NBC's "Kidnapped" and "Twenty Good Years" and CBS' "Smith."

While the season has failed to produce a breakout fall hit of the size of "Heroes," "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," ABC has fared the best overall. Two of its freshman series -- "Grey's Anatomy" spinoff "Private Practice" and critical darling "Pushing Daisies" -- have been given full-season orders, with comedy "Samantha Who?" all but picked up, too. ABC boasts the highest-rated new drama with "Practice" and comedy with "Samantha."

CBS, Fox and the CW each has picked up one scripted rookie series: "The Big Bang Theory," "Back to You" and "Gossip Girl," respectively.

NBC, whose new offerings have slipped after a great start -- most notably "Bionic Woman" -- has yet to hand out a full-season order. That's in stark contrast to last year, when "Heroes" became the first freshman series to be picked up.

Most of the faltering new series on all the networks are still in contention. With the exceptions of "Cavemen," "Life Is Wild" and late entry "Women's Murder Club," all others have received additional script orders. While it has been a growing trend for the networks to hedge their bets by ordering more scripts of new series in lieu of early full-season pickups, the looming writers strike has provided an additional incentive this year to stockpile scripts just in case.

While the strike is the only thing on everyone's mind in Hollywood these days, early last week it took back seat to the reports of devastation from the California fires that produced one particularly haunting image -- a San Diego TV newsman reporting live in front of his burning house of 25 years. [See video, left]  It captured the great pain and sense of helplessness brought by the disaster.

It's a big stretch, but in a weird away, it also was a symbol of what we, reporters covering television, might be faced with in case of a long strike: reporting live on the destruction of our TV industry home and the 60 years of great memories in it.
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