tv reporter

Nets jump pickup gun as fear of strike looms

It's barely August, but the broadcast networks are already reaching deep into their development coffers. There have been two fierce bidding wars already — over the medieval fantasy pitch "Kingdom," which landed at CBS with a $2 million penalty, and the spec "The Oaks," which snagged a similar penalty at Fox. Two more big deals are pending.

Typically, networks don't enter the fray in a big way until after Labor Day. Two of the highest-profile projects in recent years that sparked a bidding frenzy — "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and "The Class" — didn't hit the marketplace until early October 2005.

But 2007 is not your typical year. With talks between the WGA and the studios starting off on a contentious note and the Oct. 31 expiration date of the TV writers' current contract looming, the networks are bracing themselves for a possible work stoppage. "We're in an aggressive mode as we turn an eye toward a potential strike," one network executive says.

Spec scripts like "Oaks" as well as the comedy "My Best Friend's Girl," recently picked up by CBS with a cast-contingent pilot order, are especially attractive because they can go into production right away.

Strike contingencies also might have factored into Fox's and NBC's recent scheduling changes. The networks added to their fall lineups the karaoke game shows "Don't Forget the Lyrics" and "The Singing Bee," respectively, while building a larger strike chest by holding back other series, including the new Fox drama "New Amsterdam."

With the gloom and doom of the 1988 writers strike on TV executives' minds, it has been a jittery summer with little vacation time for anyone in the industry. But because so much product is getting into the pipeline with major commitments, everyone should probably start planning months-long holidays for next summer with or without a strike.

Although they have yet to break into the best drama and comedy series categories, basic cable networks continue to make strides at the Emmys. Several, including AMC (18 nominations), Comedy Central (12) and Bravo (nine), had their best showings ever this year.

Yes, the tallies pale next to HBO's 86 (a soft year for the pay cabler) and next to the broadcast nets' scores. But with a fraction of the budgets and the viewership of the broadcast networks and HBO, basic cable slowly but surely has taken over two prestigious categories — best variety, music or comedy series and best reality competition.

Save for some HBO series, the best variety, music or comedy series category had been the domain of broadcast TV's late-night shows for 10 years until 2003, when Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" snapped the five-year winning streak of CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman." "Daily Show" is on a winning streak of its own with four consecutive victories. Its biggest competition this year is its own Comedy Central spinoff, "The Colbert Report."

Meanwhile, Bravo had been the lone cable representative in the reality-competition category with "Project Runway" until the network's "Top Chef" joined the field this year, making Bravo the only network — broadcast or cable — with multiple shows in the running.

While the broadcast and some major cable nets are going for broad appeal, Comedy Central and Bravo have opted for a narrow focus — comedy programming and unscripted fare, respectively. That focus is paying off — the two nets dominate their fields. And they might not be done. "It's only a matter of time before we land a best comedy series nomination," Comedy Central's Michele Ganeless says.