Writers will be back but viewers may not


Despite a divisive and paralyzing strike that looks, at the moment, as if it won't be going bye-bye anytime soon, I'm nonetheless feeling fairly bullish about things this holiday season. The reason: We're all slowly discovering that the unthinkable isn't quite so cataclysmic after all.

I'm talking about the growing likelihood that the ongoing WGA walkout is shrinking the primetime broadcast TV season down to essentially a three-month affair. This is a fancy way of saying it's well on its way to being toast. But rather than despair, what we're hearing from America re this potential development sounds a lot like, "Yeah, whatever."

The viewing public appears to have come to the stunning conclusion that they can survive without 22 all-new editions of "Las Vegas" and "According to Jim." It isn't quite like trying to go without food and shelter, after all. And should the strike drag on clear through the long-feared, worst-case-scenario time frame -- say, six to eight months -- that newfound revelation stands to be a far greater challenge than getting past the immediate financial hit.

It happens that the studios and networks really couldn't have chosen a worse time to give the primetime audience added incentive to defect from the increasingly antiquated real-time viewing model. They perhaps arrogantly looked at the landscape and surmised they could afford to bag a 2007-08 schedule whose new crop of shows were so collectively dismal that it could have been nicknamed "The Season of the Which?"

Only on ABC had any of the new series generated anything resembling ratings traction or quasi-excitement. Those would be the comedy "Samantha Who?" and the dramas "Pushing Daisies," "Private Practice" and "Dirty Sexy Money." The other newbies were themselves pushing daisies before the WGA short-circuited a fall campaign that had evidently been earmarked for failure from the start.

Of course, even if the strike extends only into February, that could torpedo not only the remainder of the primetime season but pilot season as well. The only folks who aren't living in massive dread of this doomsday development reside over at Fox, where the strike-resistant "American Idol" stands to face virtually zero competition come its January premiere.

Even the nation's TV critics are poised to take one to the chops in that the January information-gathering press tour is on the verge of cancellation due to dearth of product, meaning that these intrepid professionals may soon be forced to interview waitresses, teachers, the homeless, really anyone who will acknowledge them.

Yet none of this stands to much alter the lives of anyone outside of the Los Angeles/New York/Chicago TV industry axis. In case you failed to see the memo, with but a few exceptions, nearly everything that resembles appointment television has up and moved to the cable dial. And the stuff that people do watch is now often done via time-shifted DVR, full-season DVD and online streaming/downloading.

Ergo, what appears to have been a calculated strategy from the studio side to allow a bleak TV season to quietly perish, going through the motions of strike negotiation while carefully steering clear of compromise, carries the very real possibility of backfiring. They apparently neglected to consider that consumers are able to retain a surprisingly high quality of existence without their product.

We might think of the strike's devastating impact on future television production and availability as similar to the reign of Prohibition in the 1920s and early '30s. Imagine that the studios are the underground liquor runners, writers the alcohol distillers and the public the customers -- while the strike negotiating teams are Alcoholics Anonymous.

The good news is, kicking the network TV addiction requires but a single step: admitting your powerlessness over negotiations.