Bile-filled talks between Hollywood's screenwriters and producers have given the entertainment industry plenty of frights and left it doubtful there's sufficient impetus to reach an agreement by the time the Writers Guild of America's contract expires Oct. 31. With a strike more than likely, it's worth asking what that might mean for marketers and the billions they spend on advertising every year.
"TV is about to fundamentally change, whether we go on strike or not," said Michael Winship, the newly elected president of WGA East.
True enough, but whatever roiling changes digital brings to TV in the coming years, the expected writers strike will bring far more immediate challenges for Madison Avenue. Here are a few of them, along with a timeline of what will be hurt when and the possible remedies for marketers.
DAY ONE: The first victims will be late-night TV and pseudo-news gabfests such as "The View" and "The Daily Show," where a strike will have "an instant impact," said David Miner, executive producer of "30 Rock" and manager of numerous comedy writers on "Saturday Night Live," "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and other late-night shows. Said Mr. Miner, "Based on where you get your daily fix, you're either headed elsewhere or you're going to bed earlier."
According to a TNS Media Intelligence study done just last year, commercials and brand integrations on the sorts of shows hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno and David Letterman accounted for more than half the airtime -- 31 minutes an hour, with almost 23 minutes of commercials and just under nine minutes devoted to product integration.
"'The Tonight Show' is the most profitable in the entertainment division," said Warren Littlefield, who installed Mr. Leno when he was entertainment president at NBC in the early '90s. With some $200 million in revenue, "The Tonight Show" brings in roughly $50 million in profit -- black ink and ad inventory that would be -- poof! -- gone overnight.
Ironically, that very heavy load of commercials in late night is what got advertisers interested in what could be a stop-gap to a strike -- branded entertainment -- in the first place.
Said Jordan Radnor, chief operating officer of Conductor, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based branded-entertainment and marketing firm, "If the networks start showing reruns and it affects viewership, we would hope it opens up other alternatives." A writers strike, he said, "could be an opportunity. It certainly won't hurt those of us creating branded content."
Mr. Radnor, for example, is in the midst of creating three- to five-minute episodes of a new comedy series for Stouffer's Lean Cuisine. He declined to speak further about the series, citing client-confidentiality agreements, but said it will make its debut in the next couple of weeks.
NEXT MONTH: After late night, WGA East's Mr. Winship said, daytime dramas will be the next area to get roughed up. Soaps, thanks to their aggressive shooting schedules, would last "two to three weeks" during a strike since "their story arcs are taped that far ahead," Mr. Winship said.
THIS WINTER: The final month of 2007 will not be "a December to remember," said Mr. Littlefield, who witnessed the 1988 WGA strike firsthand. Instead, specials and holiday-themed events programming will predominate, as networks seek to conserve the few original scripted shows they have.
In a protracted strike, February's Nielsen measurement period would bring "a far less meaningful book than ever," cementing advertisers' preference for seasonlong ratings over sweeps. Look for TV to take on a foreign accent, Mr. Littlefield added, with plenty of U.K. and Australian imports flown in to avoid ratings-killing repeats in prime time.
"Some nuts are stored up for this cold day," Mr. Littlefield said, referring to original scripted series put in the larder to prepare for the expected work stoppage. "But when you break a habit and pattern of viewership, nothing good comes of it."
THE FUTURE: While Mr. Winship says it's the WGA's fervent hope that writers won't do work for internet companies whose parent companies also own studios and networks, it appears that, as Samuel Goldwyn used to say, "that train has sailed," and brands looking to bolster their numbers might do so online.
For example, Marshall Herskovitz, the producer of ABC dramas such as "Thirtysomething" and "Once and Again," is readying a new internet series, "Quarterlife," for MySpace this fall. Insiders tell Ad Age there will be three main sponsoring brands on the show, each of which will make a major commitment to quarterlife.com.
In an e-mail interview with Ad Age, Mr. Herskovitz said, "Advertisers are looking for the breakthrough that will establish online programming as equally viable as television. So far that hasn't happened, though clearly some of them are betting on our show."
It's a bellwether the rest of Hollywood is watching closely.
"The nightmare," Mr. Littlefield said, "is we finally get to 'Let's come back to work' -- and nobody cares."