For shows' writers, warp speed ahead

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Scripted primetime TV comedies and dramas that had been forced to the sidelines face the daunting prospect of making up for a three-month work stoppage, which will mean a profoundly stepped-up writing/production pace.

The consensus is that the hiatus hasn't been long enough to completely torpedo the remainder of the 2007-08 season, but it certainly has been sufficient enough to wreak havoc. Some shows will immediately jump into marathon mode to finish production orders — and land episodes on the air — during spring. Others figure to bleed original segments into summer. Still others, including many dramas, won't have time to finish their seasons and will thus find their orders curtailed because of circumstance.

And in the case of at least one series, it's probable that the strike will cause a full year's postponement. That would be Fox's "24," which for the past several seasons has premiered its 24-episode campaign in January and gone with originals clear through May. That's obviously not possible this time, and the fate of the hour drama's seventh season remains a question mark.

David Fury, a "24" writer and executive producer, said Sunday that his series — a hellish show to produce in the best of times — had only eight episodes for this season written, shot and in the can.

"We were in the midst of writing episodes 9 and 10 when the strike broke," he said. "Our thinking is that we could have maybe 12 episodes to run in March, April and May. That would require the second half of our season to run in summer, which none of us wants to do. It would be a crime to have to be buried and burned off during those months. The only scenario that really makes sense is to come back in January 2009."

Seemingly far less impacted is the TNT's "The Closer." Creator-showrunner James Duff said the drama will now likely have its fourth season delayed only a month. It will now return with originals in July if all goes according to plan.

"It doesn't sound like a big deal, but that 30 days is really a crucial gap," Duff said. "The problem is that so much of our marketing campaign revolves around TNT's coverage of the NBA playoffs. We'll now face a considerable delay following the playoffs. We're also losing a good amount of prep time. Once we're back, we'll be banging out scripts 24/7 and shooting our season through October rather than August."

It could take at least a few weeks for production plans to solidify with respect to original shows whose seasons were profoundly interrupted. Shawn Ryan, creator/showrunner for FX's "The Shield" and CBS' "The Unit," had yet to complete postproduction work on the seventh and final season of "The Shield" when the strike arrived. Four installments are yet to wrap on the series' 13-episode capper, and none has aired.

"We're not sure when FX plans to air the final season, other than sometime in 2008," Ryan said.

The situation is even less certain for "The Unit," which was working on episode 11 of its third season. The back nine already had been picked up, but Ryan said, "We're not sure how many more CBS will want us to make. We hope the network will be able to answer that in a day or two."

Ryan was sure, however, of when he'd be back at work: today. The showrunner members of the WGA negotiating committee agreed Sunday to resume their production duties today and, pending guild ratification of the contract, to have their writing staffs return on Wednesday.

Duff said he hopes to return to work Wednesday. And while it's proving to be a personal pain for him involving plenty of sacrifice — financial and otherwise — he said the gains made in the agreement made it well worth it.

"For me, this strike was always about maintaining unions in the work force and the writers guild in new media," Duff said. "If you take a look at the original deal the guild was offered — with rollbacks all across the compensation spectrum and nothing for work on the Internet — it's just a huge victory for writers.

"On the other hand, it's also true that the companies could have made this deal in October and saved themselves and the Hollywood community millions and millions of dollars in lost compensation. I'd imagine they have to be asking themselves now why they didn't do that.".
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