Strike threat, digital onslaught hit TV biz


There were a few elephants in the ballroom last week at the Regent Beverly Wilshire when the broadcast network programming chiefs gathered for their annual fall luncheon panel session discussing the state of play in primetime.

The scariest beast stalking the business these days is the threat of a writers' strike next year. The chatter in the schmooze-fest that preceded the Hollywood Radio & Television Society panel Thursday made it clear that fears of a work stoppage by one or more Hollywood guilds are running high enough to affect decision-making for the 2007-08 season, even though the current WGA contract runs for another year.

The strike threat is an offshoot of the other great unknown that was front and center during the HRTS panel, namely the onslaught of digital media and its discontents for the old-school television business. There's growing sentiment in the creative community that digital media will be the new DVD-like bonanza for the major studios. On the other side of the negotiating table are network and studio executives quoting William Goldman's sturdy cliche that "nobody knows anything" for certain about how much these emerging platforms will add to their bottom lines in the coming years.

Thursday happened to be a momentous day for the programmers summit as it coincided with NBC Universal's announcement of plans to reduce its staff by 5%, or about 700 positions, most of them in the TV units, during the next two years (HR 10/20).

NBC Uni described the move as part of its ongoing effort to "redirect analog resources toward high-growth digital areas and international expansion." Rightly or wrongly, the news was read by the HRTS crowd as a stark statement that the peacock's mothership broadcast network is taking a back seat to newer initiatives within the NBC Uni empire.

The timing of the NBC Uni layoff news meant that instead of being able to bask in the glow of having the hotshot rookie show of the season so far -- the Monday fantasy drama "Heroes" -- NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly had to explain at the start of the HRTS panel why the network will focus on lower-cost reality, game shows and other unscripted fare in the 8 p.m. hour. Truth be told, NBC and other broadcast networks already have been doing that in primetime's leadoff slot for some time. But to hear it articulated as a new mantra (albeit "not an absolute" dictate, per Reilly) for the network David Sarnoff built still was jarring to many in the room.

The familiar bugaboo about rising costs and diminishing returns for networks and studios at a time when a high-end, hourlong drama costs more than $2.5 million per episode to produce was discussed at length during the panel, as was the media's ever-accelerating rush to define new shows as a hit or a miss. And the cyclical nature of good fortune in the network TV business was evident in the new outlets represented alongside the Big Four in this year's gathering, the CW network and MyNetworkTV.

For all the talk of tough choices, belt-tightening and broken business models, the session was not without its upbeat moments. ABC's Stephen McPherson noted that his network's gambit with moving "Grey's Anatomy" to 9 p.m. Thursday opposite CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" had proved again that two hit shows can comfortably coexist on the night, which made him especially happy given his involvement in developing the original "CSI" when he headed Touchstone TV.

And amid a discussion of how hard it is to draw viewers into new programs, McPherson joked that ABC might take a cue from CBS. " 'Grey's: Miami' is coming," he quipped.