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Writers strike could pull plug on TV favorites

A Nov. 1 walkout by TV and film writers seems like a very real, and frightening, possibility for the viewing public.
/ Source: contributor

Goodbye “Grey’s Anatomy,” hello “The View: Primetime”; say so long to “Friday Night Lights” and welcome “The Biggest Loser: The Three Hour Edition.”

Your TV schedule may change drastically in early 2008 if the Writers Guild of America goes out on strike Nov. 1, as it has threatened to do over the past few months. Those threats no longer feel like empty rhetoric anymore. Now, a walkout by TV and film writers seems like a very real, and frightening, possibility for the viewing public.

Before we go screaming into the night with clickers in hand, a quick recap of the facts that have led to the Hollywood showdown between the WGA and the Motion Picture and Television Producers.

The current WGA contract expires Nov. 1, and up until a few weeks ago, there was a lot of talk about how the scribes would continue to work after that date. The theory was that the extended time working without a contract would be a gesture of goodwill and, if that didn’t help bring about a new deal, the writers would join forces on the picket line with the Screen Actors Guild, who, along with the Directors Guild of America, may stop working when their respective contracts expire June 30.

That theory, however, is losing steam. The writers don’t want to wait that long and aren’t willing to make the extra effort to play nice. They’re ready to turn off their computers and walk away on Nov. 1, wanting to get the point across that TV production — or at least scripted TV — can’t go on without them.

For the most part, they’re still reeling from the last negotiation when producers pretty much shut them out of all the DVD and iTunes money.

So what does this all mean for viewers? Well, nothing immediately. In the long term, however, it’s not good.

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Typically, most primetime dramas and comedies are in production somewhere around four or six episodes ahead of air date. That means if you’re watching the fourth episode of “House” this week, the writers are putting the final touches on something like episode eight or nine now, with filming to begin soon.

Each show is different, though. Aaron Sorkin and David Milch, two extremely talented but deadline-challenged writers, didn’t give their actors scripts to work with until they were on the set, so production was always behind schedule. If episode four of “The West Wing” was on the air this week, you could be pretty sure episodes five and six weren’t even completed yet.

So let’s go back to the assumption that the strike begins on Nov. 1. There should be enough new episodes in the can to last through, at least, the middle of January. Up until then, viewers wouldn’t see the results — and possibly not even care — about the work stoppage.

But come February sweeps, when networks need to get their best ratings, there could come a huge shift in programming.

Reality shows — even though a great majority of them are written by professional writers — aren’t under the WGA contract, so networks would quickly add a ton of reality and even newsmagazines to the nighttime lineups. Fox would be in great shape, obviously, because it has the biggest reality show of the year in “American Idol” against a bunch of much lower-class competition.

Think NBC is afraid of “American Idol” now, when it has to run “Bionic Woman” against the “Idol” results show? Wait to see how petrified network boss Ben Silverman becomes when he’s forced to counter “Idol” with either a repeat of an existing scripted show (highly doubtful) or a reality show that is sure to be completely dominated in the ratings (MSNBC is a joint venture between NBC-Universal and Microsoft.).

But he might not have much of a choice. And both he and the folks at CBS, ABC, CW and even Fox (for non-“Idol” nights) are currently working on all kinds of reality shows that they can plug in if the strike happens.

And for viewers, that might not even be the worst of it. Shows that premiered just a few weeks ago that are doing marginally well in the ratings might not get the benefit of the doubt by the networks in terms of a full-season order or second-season renewal. It costs a lot of money to build and keep sets functioning, pay cast and crew, etc., and if the strike continues on, a network or studio accountant might convince the programming people that losing this much money on a show that’s not airing doesn’t make financial sense.

And here’s something else. Although the new fall season has just begun, in a few months TV executives will start to see scripts for the new shows that will air next September. Sometimes a network will buy a show based solely on the pedigree of the writer (if you’ve ever worked on “Friends,” “Frasier” or “Seinfeld,” you can get by on your reputation), but those scripts haven’t been written yet.

For WGA members without that impressive resume, you can’t pitch your brilliant new show if you can’t write it. It’s a brutal cycle.

Not all popular dramas will be affected come January or February, however. Season four of “Lost,” for example, wasn’t supposed to air until February anyway, and several episodes have already been filmed, meaning they’ll have a bunch to broadcast while everything else will be reality in one form or another.

“24,” which normally starts up in January, is in the same situation. With Kiefer Sutherland now serving 30 days in the pokey, though, who knows how that will affect production.

With the studios and TV studios having circled Nov. 1 on their calendars as a potential doomsday, they’ve been asking their writers to try and get as many episodes done as possible before that date. Because of an already intense work schedule, made even more daunting by this deadline, writers are burning themselves out. All of which means the quality of shows might suffer. Quantity, as TV is concerned, has rarely equaled quality.

So that’s where it stands now. Networks are hording scripts like squirrels saving nuts for winter, putting as many in storage as they can, hoping they don’t run out before a possible strike is settled.

Hopefully, like in all negotiations, eventually clear-minded folks can find a middle ground and order will be stored.

Here’s a word to the wise: For those episodes that you Tivo in January, don’t watch them too quickly. You might just want them on hand when the viewing options turn bare.

Stuart Levine is an assistant managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at .