Bobbleheads have prevailed over cooler heads in Hollywood


It remains uncertain where things stand with the writers strike in the wake of the studios' new three-year pact with the DGA last week. But here is what we do know: The market for bobblehead dolls is thriving.

NBC Universal rushed out a release last week to drive home the point that while it may be running a tad low on scripted episodic series product of late, it has moved 150,000 bobbleheads depicting the likeness of "The Office" character Dwight Schrute (portrayed by Rainn Wilson) -- making it the hottest-selling single item in the NBC Universal Store's eight-year history.

"The desire to take home a piece of 'The Office' with the Dwight bobblehead has exceeded all of our expectations," says NBC retail-marketing executive Judith Dutch. The moral: During a wrenching labor stoppage, 'tis better to make bobble-headway than no headway at all.

Even as the deep freeze between writers and producers began to show signs of thaw this week, the barren state of the broadcast network primetime landscape is best illustrated by the fact that NBC is banging the drum over nerd merchandise sales and the insta-renewal of its new version of "American Gladiators." Not that the network had a lot of choice. It was either bring back "Gladiators" or exhume "The A-Team."

With the strike halting all production of comedy and drama series, these are increasingly desperate times in the TV industry. One by one the networks are being forced to gut their series development slates.

Things already have degenerated to the point where Fox this week hooked people up to a lie detector and called it a game show ("The Moment of Truth"). Can "Celebrity Waterboarding" and "Who Wants to Marry a Multiple Personality?" be far behind? (Note to Fox reality guru Mike Darnell: These are jokes, not pitches.)

But while it's unlikely any network will look to cash in by hiring the striking scribes to perform improv comedy with a show they might call "Whose Picket Line Is It, Anyway?" the 3-month-old walkout is poised to alter the development-production formula during pilot season and beyond. Says who? Says NBC Universal head honcho Jeff Zucker.

Zucker told the Financial Times in London last week that the strike has proven a catalyst in rethinking his network's entire economic model. He now sees pilot season itself as an antiquated, wasteful relic and the upfronts as costly, indulgent and ultimately unnecessary.

"I think there are a tremendous number of inefficiencies in Hollywood, and it often takes a seismic event to change them," Zucker said. "I think that's what has happened here. The development process will change forever."

While this is the same Zucker who last year squandered $6 million or so in awarding a new three-year contract to his programming president Kevin Reilly a mere few months before helping negotiate his ouster, he's probably on to something here. With the strike accelerating broadcast audience erosion, the idea of blowing millions to make dozens of pilots that never land series orders indeed feels like a holdover from the age of excess.

The down side to this proposed leaner and cleaner strategy is its potential to stress budget and convenience over quality, given the dearth of choice. It means we must brace ourselves for a primetime future in which every show is mandated to feature dancing. We can choose to view it as either the dawn of an intriguing new era -- or the end of civilization.