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Strike's next victim: TV's aging biz model

Buttonholed by reporters in Davos this week, NBC's Jeff Zucker said his business hasn't been hurt by the writers strike; ditto for CBS' Leslie Moonves, who expressed a similar sentiment last week at a New York media conference.

That might be largely so, at least up through the fourth quarter of 2007 and seven weeks of the standoff with the WGA, since Q4 financial results, especially at the Peacock, have been stellar.

But it would be harder for conglomerate toppers to argue that the work stoppage hasn't nudged them to finally start doing something about the 50-year-old economic model that underpins the TV biz.

After all, they and their colleagues have been griping about its absurdities for years — the wasteful pilot season, the focus on a foreshortened upfront period for selling ad inventory, a similarly restrictive primetime launch season and costly programming face-offs during sweeps — but few significant or long-lasting tweaks have up until now been made.

Facing the prospect of a prolonged strike, with no scripters available to pen episodes of either new or returning series — not to mention a roller coaster stock market ride toward recession — has a way of concentrating the mind.

And concentrated they now seem to be.

Zucker in particular has decided to take some drastic steps, declaring that the Peacock will be buying very few pilots — just two or three a year — and instead relying on scripts, which might go straight to complete episode orders. The idea here is to zoom in on the story arc of a series earlier on and make sure the network is convinced that the structure will hold up and the story not veer into unwarranted territory.

It's hard not to be intrigued by that approach. Zucker opined that the savings could be $50 million per season.

Recent pilots have, so to speak, taken flight, becoming in essence stand-alone mini-movies, costing as much as $7 million to make and often not indicative of the eventual direction of the series plotline. It was probably only a matter of time before some network honcho cried basta, strike or no strike.

Think of 2006-07 rookies "The Nine" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," which failed to live up to the premise or the production values of their ambitious openers, or this season's "Bionic Woman" and "Viva Laughlin."

Two big questions: Will network honchos stick to their guns over time and really resist the push to pilots? After all, actors, directors and producers get to strut their stuff in these vehicles, not to mention the sizable support industries that have sprung up to service these shoots.

Secondly, will TV execs be any better at picking hits based on just the written word rather than full-fledged visual treatments? (The success of their counterparts on the studios' film side is at best mixed.)

Just in case things don't work out quite the way the latest pronouncements suggest, there is a fallback position: Like the newsmags that were launched in the wake of the 1988 strike, reality spinoffs and hybrid contests of all stripes are gaining ground on the networks, and helping to keep viewers from defecting en masse from the small screen.

If the current talks between the writers and producers do take immediate hold and a deal is worked out by, say, Oscar time, the damage to the conglomerates will be contained. Not immaterial, but containable. To other parts of the town, the toll already is steep: At least $500 million will have been lost so far.
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