Fox best prepared to weather storm

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Now that the hide-and-seek strike game has gotten to the "ready or not, here I come" stage, the broadcast networks are facing the imminent work stoppage by writers in different shapes and different degrees of preparedness.

With only 15 hours of primetime to program, Fox has a built-in advantage in case of a prolonged strike. Add to that the January return of "American Idol," which can go on as many as three nights a week, and Fox looks as strike-proof as one can be.

Fox already runs a schedule with six hours of unscripted programming, and five of them — "Kitchen Nightmares," the Thursday combo of "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" and "Don't Forget the Lyrics" and Saturday's "Cops" and "AMW: America Strikes Back" — are expected to continue beyond January, when most fall scripted series will run out of fresh episodes.

Additionally, Fox's staggered fall rollout left it with six fresh scripted series for midseason. Then there is the network's reality chief, Mike Darnell, who consistently has delivered reliable performers on the fly.

But while Fox is in the best position of all broadcast networks in face of a writers strike, it also faces the biggest predicament with the real-time drama "24." By week's end, the show will have completed about a third of its 24-episode order. If a strike starts as soon as next week and lasts several months, there will be no chance to finish the order, meaning that Fox has the option to either start Jack Bauer's new 24-hour day and cut it off somewhere in the middle or hold the series altogether. As of now, Fox is planning to premiere "24" on Jan. 13. "24" has an added importance to the network this year, as it's being used to launch Fox's high-profile new series "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles."

Coming in a close second behind Fox is ABC, which has its own multinight reality hit, "Dancing With the Stars," coming back, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" going strong as well as an extremely deep bench of shows for midseason.

ABC raised some eyebrows in March when it gave early renewals to 14 series. That was followed by the pickup of more than a dozen more shows in May. The stockpiling might come in handy in the second half of the season in case of a long strike when ABC could offer up to seven original scripted series, the most of any network.

But ABC also has the most at stake in case of a long strike. The network has launched the strongest slate of new series this fall with three — top new drama "Private Practice," top new comedy "Samantha Who?" and best-reviewed new series "Pushing Daisies" — already picked up for a full season. A disruption in the run of those series just as they are gaining momentum could be damaging — look at what happened to CBS' promising newcomer "Jericho" last year after it was taken off the air for months.

NBC and CBS are more vulnerable than their counterparts, though they have made contingency plans, too, including ramping up unscripted development in the past several months with such series as CBS' "Password" and NBC's "American Gladiators."

What works in CBS' favor is that the bread and butter of its schedule — procedural dramas — repeat well, as do some of its Monday comedies. On the flip side, the network had to summon in veteran reality series "The Amazing Race" earlier than planned to replace canceled new drama "Viva Laughlin," leaving it with a shorter midseason bench.

But the network might have another card up its sleeve with the summer reality series "Big Brother." It can get production up and running quickly, so the reality show potentially could return in midseason, airing three nights a week.

At NBC, while "Deal or No Deal" is not the juggernaut it once was, it still could be stripped on several nights. A talked-about "Celebrity Apprentice" also is a strong replacement.

The CW already had planned for a reality-heavy second part of the season, which would help, along with the return of one of its signature dramas, "One Tree Hill."

With the writers strike looming, the networks have played it safe this fall, keeping their inventory up by canceling only one new scripted series, "Viva Laughlin."

Nevertheless, "no one is strike-proof," one top network executive said.

"One of the fears is that if the writers walk out, it will accelerate the narrowing of broadcast television, and (the strike) will turn around to bite them in the back."
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