Can TV take strike two?

A SAG walkout would severely test broadcast nets

Already engaged in deep soul searching following a dismal fall TV season and flatlining ad market, broadcast networks are facing another blow: a potential SAG strike early next year.

SAG's decision during the weekend to seek a strike authorization from its membership following the breakdown of its negotiations with AMPTP has shifted the once-remote possibility of a SAG walkout much closer to reality.

While its effect would not be as far reaching as this year's strike by the WGA -- a SAG walkout would only affect scripted primetime fare -- it would derail the broadcast season for a second straight year, this time in the midst of a severe economic crisis.

"Everyone is praying that it won't happen, but the reality starts to sink in that there may be a strike," one TV studio exec said.

On Monday, TV executives who normally would be embarking on a Thanksgiving vacation were working on contingencies. For now, there are no plans to cancel or shorten the primetime series' holiday hiatuses, scheduled for the last two weeks of December, in order to get more episodes in the can.

The bulk of primetime scripted series will have 60%-75% of their episodes completed before they stop for a holiday break and as many as five unaired episodes in various stages of postproduction.

Things look better for such returning midseason series as WGA strike casualty "24" and comedies "Rules of Engagement" and "According to Jim," which will have completed their orders by the end of the year.

"Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf, in New York to receive the Founders Award at the International Emmys, said it's "unbelievable" that SAG could be moving toward a strike. "It's so out of touch with reality," he said. "Strikes very rarely accomplish what they set out to do, and it is a different situation than the '40s and '50s, when certain things had to be achieved."

Unlike the WGA strike, which crippled every primetime scripted series as well as daytime dramas and late-night talk shows, a SAG strike would only impact primetime series. Soaps and variety shows are under AFTRA's jurisdiction.

Still, the late-night guest bookings would be thinner since SAG members likely would not participate.

A SAG strike also could further cable's momentum. The cablers gained ratings ground this year because their series are produced in smaller batches throughout the year and thus were far less affected than those of the broadcast networks. The discrepancy in terms of impact would be even greater this time, as the vast majority of scripted cable series are AFTRA affiliated and won't be affected at all.

About eight broadcast series are under AFTRA, with five of them freshman shows: "90210," "Gary Unmarried" and the upcoming "Better Off Ted," "The Unusuals" and "Harper's Island." While the transition from film to digital has been slowly increasing AFTRA's piece of the primetime pie, the shift has been more profound this year, which some observers attribute in part to the threat of a SAG strike.

And with such a strike falling smack in the middle of broadcast nets' pilot production season, more producers of digitally shot pilots may opt to go with AFTRA this year.

Once again, a strike will present talent with a moral dilemma. Last year, it was the showrunners who were torn between their loyalty to the WGA and their contractual obligations to the studios for performing nonwriting duties.

This time, it would be the actors with dual SAG/AFTRA membership who would be on the spot. Those who work on AFTRA shows would be obligated to report to work yet urged by SAG not to.

As with the writers strike, the winter TCA press tour and the Golden Globes could become the first major casualties of a SAG strike, though their early dates this year could save them (TCA kicks off Jan. 8, the Globes air Jan. 11). It is likely to take SAG at least a month to take the issue to its membership for approval.

TCA president Dave Walker spent Monday discussing the situation with TV networks and the tour host Universal Hilton, which also was to house last year's canceled winter event.

"I'm guessing the result will be the same as last January: The tour can't proceed if there's a work stoppage," Walker said. "Meanwhile, though, planning continues by all involved parties."

Even if no strike has been called but the strike-authorization vote is in, some more militant SAG members could boycott both events, effectively shutting them down.

After the saber-rattling during the weekend, the rhetoric was reduced Monday.

In an interview on KTLA-TV Los Angeles, SAG president Alan Rosenberg said that even if a strike is authorized, a walkout is not imminent.

"We have to put bullets in our gun in order to get a deal," he said. "Our hope is that will make the AMPTP come back to the table and talk to us."

Paul J. Gough in New York and James Hibberd contributed to this report.