Strike skews nets' skeds, ad sale plans

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The nightmare possible scenarios for the second half of the 2007-08 broadcast season and the fall 2008 development season are looming on the horizon as talks between writers and studio reps broke off Friday.

The full effect of the writers strike will start to play across primetime in January. CBS, NBC and Fox already have outlined their plans for the first quarter, which employ the nets' entire arsenal of midseason scripted shows as well as reality and judicious repeats. (ABC is expected to announce its strike-afflicted schedule early this week.)

On the development front, the setback in the negotiations between the two sides brings the networks' closer to the possibility of scrapping this pilot season, something the nets will be forced to do if the writers work stoppage stretches well into February.

The most circulated scenario in that case includes the networks renewing all their existing series for next fall, producing their pilots in the summer and launching their new crop of shows in midseason (HR 12/4).

That, in part, would put the traditional May upfront in limbo, adding to the sense of unease on Madison Avenue, where ad buyers are concerned about the expected audience erosion in the first and especially the second quarter.

"There's been a lag in primetime with the strike. No one has felt the impact of it for the first weeks," said Brad Adgate, senior vp research at New York-based ad buyer Horizon Media. "But (the networks) aren't putting their best foot forward (anymore). And the longer this thing is dragged out, the worse it's going to be in terms of scheduling."

One network exec said that it's tough to plan for something when you don't know how long you're going to be planning for.

"We have all kinds of programming we can reach for," the executive said. "I think the toughest part of planning for this is just the unknown. We don't know. Is this going to end in a week? Two weeks? A month? Two months? That's the toughest part."

The networks are starting to look at what to do about March and April and even later than that, depending on how long the strike lasts.

"I'm really concerned about everybody but Fox starting in February," said Shari Anne Brill, senior vp at New York-based ad buyer Carat. Brill said Fox will be in good shape with "American Idol" and repeats of "House," along with new programming like "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles." That will offset the disappointment over "24." (Because of the heavily serialized nature of "24," Fox opted to hold the series instead of airing a partial season.)

Advertisers, who often worry that the programs they buy during the upfront negotiations might not be there later in the season, are now assured of it as the last original episodes of the fall series are played out and they all slip into repeats or are replaced. Some advertisers have pulled dollars because they likely won't be able to get the impact they expected. But there isn't a mass exodus, because first-quarter options — when they could pull upfront commitments without penalty — expired long ago.

But if the strike doesn't get settled soon, agencies and advertisers could exercise second-quarter options that are coming due in January. And if the networks underdeliver on their ratings guarantees — and it's reasonable to assume that they will, given how nothing but "American Idol" will equal or better the delivery of originals of "House," "Grey's Anatomy" or "CSI" — the networks would have to give make-goods or even cash back.

ABC's serialized scripted hits don't repeat well, but the network has a deep bench of replacements as well as reality hits "Dancing With the Stars" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." On the other hand, CBS doesn't have that much inventory, but its crime dramas tend to repeat well, something that would be an advantage — but only in the short term.

"There's only so many times you can run the sprockets off something," Brill said. "How many encores can you run?"

CBS will hope to bring some magic to the broadcast network with the decidedly un-family-friendly "Dexter" and perhaps other series from sister network Showtime.

"It probably speaks to how much they need scripted product," Brill said. "They probably have the least backup of any network. There are seven episodes of 'Jericho.' Maybe they are wishing they had gotten more."

NBC has had a shaky start of the season even without a strike. But scheduling chief Vince Manze said Friday that it will have more original hours of programming — scripted and reality — in the first quarter than it did in first-quarter 2007. The growth comes mostly from unscripted fare — as many as 11 hours a week — as the network plans to air 85 hours of original scripted episodes, down from about 100 last year.

That includes returning "Medium" and "Law & Order" as well as "Lipstick Jungle" and repurposed episodes of USA's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." "Friday Night Lights" and "Vegas" were on an accelerated schedule, so there still are plenty of episodes.

"We are fortunate enough that we had always planned on having scripted backup," Manze said.

It hasn't been a picnic for the networks, who have been forced to be creative with the first-quarter schedules and will have to get even more creative if the strike lasts into second quarter and, worse, further.

At least one network is trying to figure out contingencies based on dates when the strike continues and are getting to the point where there's only ideas and nothing too solid in the future.

"You're trying to keep possibilities out there and reaching for them as you need them," one exec said. "It's an ongoing process, and it's not fun."

Nellie Andreeva in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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