Networks testing new production cycles

Many existing shows continuing to shoot post-strike

At their upfront presentations in May, the broadcast networks traditionally show clips from their new series and parade onstage the casts of their returning series.

This year, things will be flipped on their head.

With many pilots yet to be shot and many existing series already in production on their 2008-09 orders, networks might end up showing clips from returning shows' upcoming seasons and introducing new shows through their casts.

More series than ever are staying in continuous production after wrapping their current seasons or starting production on their next season's orders early this year.

NBC's "Heroes" and "ER," ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" and "Dirty Sexy Money" and Fox's "House" and "Bones" are among the shows already filming episodes for fall. About two dozen series will have episodes in the can by end of June. Some of them, including "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "CSI: Miami," "CSI: NY," "NCIS," "My Name Is Earl" and "Bones," are planning to film several episodes in May or June, then take about a month off before resuming production.

"To be in (early) May and to have so much in production as we have is definitely a change," Universal Media Studios president Katherine Pope said.

The studios have been experimenting with tweaks to the traditional series production cycle in the past few years. For instance, UMS-based Dick Wolf regularly kept some of his "Law & Order" series in production longer to film a half-dozen episodes for the following season before the summer hiatus.

But this year, the series' filming schedule was given a major jolt by the writers strike, which brought production to a halt for two months during the middle of the shooting cycle.

"What you see now is a slingshot effect from the strike," one studio topper said.

Then there is the prospect of another strike, which has become more real on the heels of the broken-off talks between SAG and the studios this week.

"It would be insincere to suggest that a potential SAG strike is not on our minds," 20th Century Fox TV chairman Dana Walden said. "We are thinking about it, but we are hoping it doesn't come to that. We've been through a debilitating time (with the writers strike), and no one is looking forward to another work stoppage."

But though the change in the production schedules this year guarantees that many series will have a few episodes in the can by June 30 -- the date when SAG's current contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers expires -- the decision to shift production to May and June was not driven by strike concerns, studio executive stress.

A main reason for extending production on some shows was to help their casts and crews.

Series normally get about two months off. The writers strike already forced a two-month hiatus, for which crew and cast members were not paid.

"We wanted to give our crew members a chance to supplement the income lost during the strike by staying in production longer," Walden said.

Studios also have been looking to produce additional episodes of their hit series to offset the losses of potential syndication and international revenue. Because the writers strike led to abbreviated seasons, fewer episodes were added to the series' syndication and the international coffers.

But most of all, the changes in the production schedules were dictated by the networks' needs. Nets might request new episodes of their returning shows sooner this year as most of them are expected to launch their seasons early, in part to take advantage of the massive viewership drawn to broadcast TV by the Summer Olympics.

A lot has been made of the potential impact of the writers strike on the TV business. As with the broadcast development model, where observers defer in options if the strike will have a long-term effect, studio executives are split on how lasting the triggered-by-the strike shifts in the series' production schedule will be.

Pope believes that the changes will stick.

"Adjustment to series' production schedule is very hard to do," she said. "But once you make the adjustment, it's rare to go to the old way."

Others disagree.

"I think that phenomenon is a one-time-only situation," a rival studio chief said. "Eventually, we will get back to the same basic production cycle."

Whatever the future model is, it would be better than the uncertainty, fueled by strike fears, that has wreaked havoc in the series' filming cycles for the past year.

Planning for a potential writers strike in the summer, 20th TV executives plotted four to five production schedules for each show.

"It would certainly be nice to go back to a time when setting a production schedule can be predictable and reliable," Walden said.
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