Think your job is stressful? TV execs might laugh at you


It felt like seeing a picture of an old classmate whose name you've forgotten.

Waiting for a green light at the intersection of La Brea and Olympic the other day, I saw a faded bus stop poster for ABC's freshman comedy "Samantha Who?"

I found myself repeating the title question in my head -- Samantha who? -- as I unsuccessfully tried to recall story lines and scenes from the show, which only a couple of months ago was riding high as the season's top new comedy series.

That's the plight of all promising new scripted series whose freshman run was cut short by the writers strike, including NBC's "Chuck" (who?), ABC's "Private Practice" and "Pushing Daisies" and CBS' "The Big Bang Theory."

They do still occasionally pop up in unexpected places, like the "Chuck" double-header Thursday and a "Samantha Who?" repeat scheduled after the State of the Union address Monday night, which makes things even more confusing for viewers.

Scheduling has became one of the most stressful network jobs during the strike, with executives redoing the lineups on a weekly basis and changing plans midstream.

For example, back in October, NBC hatched an '80s-themed week to air during the February sweep, with retro story lines in its scripted series and the new "American Gladiators" complementing the premiere of the new "Knight Rider." Because of the strike, the plan was scaled back to an '80s Sunday night, with the two-hour season finale of "Gladiators" leading into the two-hour "Knight Rider" on Feb. 17.

Right behind schedulers in level of stress and anxiety are the networks' marketing teams. After spending months and millions of dollars promoting the launch of the new fall series, they found their work completely undone by the prolonged strike, which sent the fledging shows into oblivion. Now, the rookie series that make the cut for next season will have to be marketed almost like new shows.

But no executives have been stressing out more in the past three months than network heads who saw their nets' fortunes swing overnight because of the strike.

Without football or original episodes of its scripted staples, and with its reality hit "Dancing With the Stars" taking a break between cycles, ABC faded away so quickly that it allowed Fox to take the ratings lead for the broadcast season earlier than ever.

Meanwhile, NBC was reinvigorated in January with "Gladiators" and resurgent "Deal or No Deal" and "The Biggest Loser."

Overall, (harsh) reality rules television onscreen and off these strike-impacted days.

For the past two weeks, the 8-10 p.m. block on every night but Friday was won in the ratings by unscripted programming.

Meanwhile, "Deal or No Deal" and its spinoff "Script or No Script" were a hit with the major TV studios and all networks except NBC, which collectively shed some 70 overall deals and 100 pilot scripts during the past two weeks.

The highest-rated new series of the season also is unscripted: Mike Darnell's latest monster hit "The Moment of Truth" on Fox.

The show is Darnell's empathic answer to those who thought that he had finally mellowed with such warm and fuzzy fare as "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" and "Don't Forget the Lyrics."

"Truth," in which contestants answer embarrassing personal questions in front of family and friends with the truthfulness of their replies judged by a lie-detector test, is a worthy successor to such morally ambiguous Darnell classics as "Paradise Hotel" and "Joe Millionaire."

It also brings the reality genius oh-so-close to an unscripted version of the Milgram experiment -- with contestants hooked to an electro-shock generator and a false answer triggering a shock.

Catia, whose personal trainer husband Ty admitted on the premiere episode of "Moment of Truth" that he has delayed having children because he is not sure she would be his "lifelong partner," probably wouldn't have minded administering the shock.