According to these executives, the Writers Guild of America is expected to present new terms to its members over the weekend. The strike, which started Nov. 5, has centered largely on a debate about payments to writers for content that appears online -- an increasingly common phenomenon given the penetration of household broadband connections. Should the deal be ratified, the strike could end in time to keep the Academy Awards, one of network TV's biggest annual events, on the air.
WGA representatives could not be reached for comment.
Some have discussed shifting dollars into other media venues. Programs such as "Lost" on ABC and "American Idol" on Fox have continued to demonstrate the power of broadcast TV, which features original scripted content and blockbuste rreality series that draw thousands of viewers -- and potential consumers -- at one time. It's hard for advertisers to figure out where else to put their money to match that reach, though some have discussed shifting dollars into other media venues including online, cable, print and cinema.
Cable ratings up, broadcast down
But chinks have developed in the broadcast-network armor. Prime-time ratings in January among viewers aged 18 to 49 -- a coveted demographic by advertisers -- grew on basic cable in aggregate by 6.8% while they fell 11% in aggregate at the four big broadcast networks, according to Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Michael Nathanson.
"While the broadcast network ratings declines are a continuation of the downward trends from the summer, the audience declines are also likely due in part to the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike, which has partially disrupted the broadcast network schedules for original scripted shows. We believe that the ratings declines at the broadcast networks could continue or accelerate as the strike drags on and the broadcast networks run out of inventory of new episodes," he said in a Jan. 30 research note.
A resolution by mid-month could solve a lot of problems. While the networks have no doubt saved millions of dollars in production costs all this time, they also stand to lose ad revenue as ratings continue to slip. Should the strike be resolved, networks could probably produce five to six episodes of their best-performing programs in time to air during May sweeps. They would also be able to commission a few pilots in time to show to advertisers during the May upfront selling seasons. However, many of the networks have already canceled a number of production deals.
New episodes might take months
Even though the fog of the strike may be about to clear, some elements of the picture are hazy. Getting new episodes on the air could take anywhere from four to eight weeks, according to network executives, depending on whether individual programs had scripts in the pipeline as well as the difficulty of shooting scenes. Sitcoms that play out in front of a live audience are much easier to produce than dramas filmed on location.
Some networks, most notably NBC, have suggested that they might hold smaller upfront planning sessions with specific media buyers and clients, threatening to scuttle the years-old tradition of networks mounting glitzy presentations in New York City to highlight new offerings for the fall seasons. Others believe the strike has accelerated the movement among the broadcast networks to change the way they approach developing and scheduling shows.