Strike rewrites the TV biz

Development process may never be same

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UPDATED 10:55 a.m. Monday, Feb. 11, 2008

The 2007-08 writers strike has lasted half as long as the walkout of 1988, but its short-term and long-term effects on the television business could be more profound and longer-lasting.

"It has been very detrimental to the scripted television business," one studio chief said.

Another studio topper pointed to last Wednesday, when all broadcast networks offered original scripted series at 10 p.m. but none could crack 3 rating in the 18-49 demo.

"It speaks to the fact that viewers don't know that original programming is on the air, and to some degree, they don't care," the exec said. "Viewers are out of the habit of watching original scripted series, and it will take a long time for them to develop renewed interest and compulsion to watch again."

Most broadcast networks will try to rebuild viewers' interest as quickly as possible, rushing existing series into production right away and bringing original episodes on the air as soon as four weeks from now.

CBS and the CW, which have been hit hard by the strike, are said to be very aggressive about putting scripted originals, including CBS' Monday comedies and hit crime dramas, on as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, NBC -- which found some success during the strike with unscripted fare and whose executives have been very vocal about making production more cost-efficient -- would not be bringing most of their dramas back for new episodes this spring, sources said. Instead, the network is planning to bank the extra produced episodes and run longer seasons with more stretches of original segments next season.

Similarly, Fox is not bringing back for more episodes the serialized dramas such as "24," which is still on course to return in January, and "Prison Break," but is expected to air originals of its comedies.

The network, which may use the extra produced episodes of some series to do an early lauch in August, also is sticking to its plan to hold an upfront presentation despite NBC's intent of canceling theirs.

Additionally, some nets are considering running originals into June, beyond the official end of the broadcast season in late May.

As for networks' development post-strike, "it's going to be a potpourri of a lot of different things -- some shows will be ordered to series, some to pilots, some to presentations, some shows will be asked to produce more scripts, and some shows that are too big and too ambitious will be relegated to a slower time track," one studio chief said. ABC, CBS, Fox and the CW together already axed about 100 commissioned scripts last month, citing the effects of the strike.

Long-term, the broadcast networks are expected to try different things, including moving closer to the cable model, producing fewer pilots to give them more attention in development.

"In a market where TV spending has slowed, even before the strike, we can only hope that the silver lining to this challenging period is new programming models and a new willingness to experiment for success," said Chris Boothe, president of Chicago-based media buyer Starcom USA.

With a few exceptions, including the delayed start of production on Lifetime's "Army Wives" and abbreviated seasons of FX's "The Riches" and "Dirt," cable networks were not too effected by the strike, as most of their series air in the summer.

"Many networks had reality shows that broke out" or had enough off-net series and theatrical acquisitions that they didn't have to worry about filling out their schedules, Lifetime Networks president of entertainment Susanne Daniels said.



But the biggest winner of the writers strike was Fox, riding high on a record Super Bowl, sky-high NFC championships, "American Idol," "House" and "Moment of Truth."

"Scheduling serendipity helped Fox significantly more than rival networks as the confluence of the NFL playoffs and 'American Idol' gave it the best advantage," said John Rash, senior vp at Minneapolis-based ad buyer Campbell Mithun.

NBC also seems to have benefited from the strike, rising to second place in adults 18-49 for the season (tied with ABC) thanks to success with "American Gladiators," "The Biggest Loser" and, to some degree, "Celebrity Apprentice."

" 'American Gladiators' is a show that is going to stay on the network (after the strike is over), though it's not clear (whether) it will have the staying power of 'Cops,' which premiered in 1988 during the strike and is still on the air," said Brad Adgate, research chief for New York-based ad buyer Horizon Media.

ABC has suffered without originals of its biggest scripted hits.

"ABC had been performing relatively well with scripted series and was hit particularly hard by 'Desperate Housewives' and 'Grey's Anatomy' fading to black," Rash said.

CBS also took a hit because it held back most of its midseason replacements for February, and its schedule didn't repeat as well as some had hoped.

"CBS' traditional audience is the most loyal to network TV, but even that network suffered due to a schedule relatively replete with repeats and reality," Rash said.

In the worst shape is the CW, which so far in February is down 47% from last year in its target 18-34 demo. That's been to the benefit of Spanish-language Univision, which has staked its claim to becoming the fifth major network.

With the exception of Fox, the strike has had a major ratings impact on the broadcasters, and its end will hopefully bring the focus back where it belongs, Rash said.

"The strike proved scripted series are more important than ever, but so much concern has gone into the dissemination of them as opposed to the creation of them, it's now time to refocus on the software rather than the hardware," he said.

Nellie Andreeva reported from Los Angeles; Paul Gough reported from New York. Kimberly Nordyke in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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