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If the strike’s over, where are our TV shows?

Two simple questions prey on every viewer’s mind: When will my favorite scripted programs be back with new episodes? And, WILL my favorite shows be back?
/ Source: The Associated Press

No more writers on picket lines. No more network TV bosses scrambling for replacement shows.

But enough about them. What about us?

Two simple questions prey on every viewer’s mind: When will my favorite scripted programs be back with new episodes? And, WILL my favorite shows be back?

Here are the short-and-sweet answers from industry insiders after the three-month Hollywood writers’ strike:

— Many hit series (such as ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” as well as CBS’ “CSI” trio) will be back this spring for what’s left of the current season, with anywhere from four to seven new episodes. But don’t bet on weaker, “on-the-bubble” shows (NBC’s “Bionic Woman” and CBS’ “Moonlight,” for example) returning until fall, if then.

— And be prepared to muster a little more patience. A minimum of four weeks will be needed for producers to get the first post-strike episode of comedies (such as CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” and NBC’s “My Name Is Earl”) started from scratch and back on the air; a drama will require six to eight weeks from concept to broadcast.

But there’s no simple rule of thumb, added these TV execs, most of whom agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media. Every show is its own special case.

Vexing calculus
If a series had a script near completion when the strike was called in November, it’s got a head start resuming production now.

For example, CBS’ “Criminal Minds” had one script in progress and a network-approved outline for another, said co-executive producer Chris Mundy, who cited something else that gives his show an advantage: “We didn’t have to break down our sets. We’re luckier than most.”

Meanwhile, a complicated serial drama with vast technical demands — notably the NBC hit “Heroes” — may not be deemed worth returning this season at all. The cost of ramping up for such a production may not justify that expense when only a handful of episodes are being ordered.

Other shows, including ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money” and NBC’s “Chuck,” also aren’t expected until fall. And Fox’s “24” is unlikely to be back until early 2009.

Adding to this vexing calculus, each network will have to integrate its returning series into a prime-time schedule that, during the strike, has adapted to the absence of those shows with substitute fare.

Networks will also continue rolling out new series that were in the can before the strike. A CBS sitcom, “Welcome to the Captain,” debuted just last week, as did NBC’s dramedy “Lipstick Jungle.” Fox has no fewer than four new dramas and comedies on tap.

Potential game-changerNo wonder if, amid all this turmoil, the networks will be rationing their new, post-strike product. They say they don’t want to put fresh episodes at risk of getting lost in the shuffle.

“The networks will have to decide the tipping point: How many new shows is too many?” said Katherine Pope, president of Universal Media Studios, which, like NBC, is part of NBC Universal.

But a potential game-changer could be in the cards: One or more networks might elect to extend the season beyond May, which, of course, would call for even more new episodes. The chances of that happening aren’t great. Viewership traditionally dips during summer months, and networks don’t like running their best stuff when viewers aren’t watching. But the post-strike landscape may not bow to tradition any more than the season has thus far.

Next season, too, is already being shaped by the strike.

NBC wants us to know it’s been planning ahead. It recently announced a series pickup for the American adaptation of “Kath & Kim,” a comedy hit in Australia. Likely to premiere this fall, it was a straight-to-series order that required no pilot.

But overall, the so-called development process for next fall has been delayed by the strike. Don’t expect the usual crush of freshman shows right after Labor Day. And that looming void could have an impact on what we see (or don’t see) this spring. In some cases, a network will opt to bank a series’ remaining episodes to help fill the autumn programming gap.

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These are decisions that must be made quickly, and industry execs say they prepared for numerous contingencies as the strike wore on.

“But until the studio and network and show runner for each series can get in a room together and talk, we don’t have answers,” said a studio executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media. Many such meetings were expected to take place Monday.

Getting ‘Lost’Damon Lindelof is eager for some answers. An executive producer of ABC’s mystery serial “Lost,” he should learn this week what his show’s future holds as it closes out its fourth season.

“Lost” has been back on the air just two weeks. But the strike meant a planned 16-episode shooting schedule was halted after just eight episodes were shot. Fans braced themselves for no more this season.

“But we very much want to come back and do as many episodes as possible,” said Lindelof, who then listed a few issues that first need to be settled.

“How many episodes can best serve our story? And what are the production realities?” He noted that the shooting facility in Hawaii, 2,500 miles from his Los Angeles office, had been shuttered since Thanksgiving. The crew has dispersed, the huge cast has scattered.

The first new post-strike episode of “Lost” could possibly be ready for broadcast the week after episode eight appears, he said. There likely would be three or four more after that.

Could there be even more?

“I’d be surprised if the network wanted to air episodes deep into the summer,” he said. But if all the pieces fell into place, “Lost” fans would be blessed: “I don’t see why we couldn’t deliver all eight remaining episodes.”

That kind of zeal should warm viewers’ hearts. Lindelof and the rest of TV’s creative community seem delighted to be back.

Almost as delighted as we are.