Strike could ground pilots

Upfront process also in jeopardy

If a settlement with the WGA is not reached within the next few weeks, the broadcast TV pilot season could be torpedoed. A long strike also could rattle the May upfront ad buying period for fall 2008.

So say a number of network execs and other industry sources, none of whom would speak on the record because of the sensitivity of labor negotiations.

Consider these scenarios: If the work stoppage is not ended soon and writers aren't back on the job by Jan. 1, 25% of the usual number of pilots produced for next season would have to be scrapped.

Even worse, if the strike lasts until Feb. 1, that number of scrapped pilots goes to 50%. And if the strike persists well into February — a doomsday scenario — the entire primetime development season would have to be jettisoned unless the industry decided to move the upfront back into late June or July.

One option the networks are quietly prepping for is to bring back their returning shows for the start of next season, develop new series through the summer and then introduce their new slates in midseason, beginning in January 2009.

Apparently, the WGA caught the networks by surprise when it decided to strike Nov. 4, only a few days after its contract expired. In its dealings with the networks' news operations, the guild traditionally has worked well past the expiration of its contracts.

"The networks did not think a strike would be called so soon," said one observer familiar with the network execs' position. "Even though they tried to shoot some pilots earlier, they did not make enough progress on that."

A WGA source pointed out that the timing of the strike was "specifically chosen at a point where we felt we would have the greatest impact and create the most leverage for us."

But one network exec retorted that the more damage the guild does to the development process, the more damage it does to its members' careers.

"Hampering the number of new shows the networks can put on the air next season is only going to adversely affect their jobs because there would be fewer projects to work on," the exec said.

Another network exec even wondered aloud how vital new shows actually are to the upfront ad buying process.

"Most advertisers want to get into the most popular returning shows, and in buying upfront programming, they include some of the new shows in their packages," the exec said. "But the new shows have no track record, so it is just a crap shoot anyway."

He implied that there is no reason the new shows for next season couldn't be sold separately at some later point, possibly in the scatter market with some type of guarantees.

"But we are not going to rush once the strike is settled to put just any new shows on the air that we can get ready if the quality is not good," the entertainment exec stressed.

ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox each has between four and 10 scripted sitcoms and dramas for next season in various stages of development, but only a few actually have shot pilots. And those pilots need additional work. The CW has greenlighted no new programming for next season.

"Even if a tentative agreement is reached by the negotiators within the next few weeks, it will take a few weeks after that to get the guild membership to vote to ratify it," one network exec said. "And then it will take another few weeks to gear back up, with the first priority being to finish writing this season's shows."

Adding to the logjam is the fact that only 15%-20% of the guild's writers are employed to write the broadcast network shows.

Many of the same writers who are working on this season's shows would also be those writing pilots to be developed for next season. It's going to be quite difficult for them to be writing for two shows at the same time.

"Usually there is some downtime for the writers when they finish up with scripts for existing shows and can move on to writing for developing shows," one network exec said, "but the downtime from the strike is not going to allow that this season."

The process for developing shows is a slow one. Once a script is accepted by a network, the entertainment execs then pore over it, making comments and suggestions. Meetings are then held to go over those suggestions until a final script is hammered out and approved. Casts must then be selected and table readings held before the pilot is shot.

Under normal circumstances, if a network decides to do 20-25 pilots, the process can last four or five months. And, traditionally, the networks barely get done in time for the May upfront. But taking a month so far, and possibly another month going forward, out of the process severely limits how many pilots each web can now realistically greenlight and get ready by the upfront.

As a result, the traditional May upfront presentation week may have to be altered, by either pushing it back a month or two or scrapping it in favor of individual meetings between the media buyers and the networks.

Either way, the longer the strike, the bigger the marketplace hassle.

John Consoli is a reporter for Media Week.