Nets Rethink Priorities as Writers Strike Lingers

Upfront Presentations Likely to Be Scrapped or Scaled Back Significantly

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- How quickly can network TV get back on track after the writers strike? Estimates from analysts and industry insiders suggest it will take anywhere from four to eight weeks to get scripted dramas and comedies back on the air, meaning that if the strike were resolved by mid-February, the broadcast networks still wouldn't be back to full strength until mid-March or mid-April at the earliest.
'24': Even without new episodes, advertisers have been loath to pull ads from established series because it's very difficult to match broadcast TV's reach.
'24': Even without new episodes, advertisers have been loath to pull ads from established series because it's very difficult to match broadcast TV's reach. Credit: Kelsey McNeal
That would give them time to have stunning May sweeps, no doubt, but probably would mean that a full season of TV's best (about 22 episodes of each series) is not in the cards.

"It's probably too late to fully salvage the current season," said Fred Moran, an analyst with Stanford Equity Research. But he said there is an impetus for all the networks to get something more dynamic on the air than "American Gladiators." "We are approaching the pilot season in Hollywood, which is when the next season of shows are reviewed and considered. With a writers strike, you would have a major interruption."

Shows that had scripts in the pipeline when the strike took effect Nov. 5 will start from a position of strength. Comedies, which typically are taped in front of studio audiences, will be much easier to get into production than dramas, which depend more on scenes shot on location.

Summertime TV?
It's also not clear whether networks will produce so many episodes of the programs that they'll keep pushing out new product past May, when the TV season normally ends. One theory holds that networks would save money by producing only a few new episodes and ending the season as usual in May. That way they could avoid putting out shows in June and July, when conventional wisdom says viewers migrate elsewhere, even if advertisers are eager to extend the season to make up for the ratings shortfall going on now.

Already there are signs the strike has taught networks the value of keeping production costs lower, something that would manifest itself in a short season this year or even next fall. Several studios, including Warner Bros. TV, CBS Paramount Network TV, Universal Media Studios and 20th Century Fox TV, already have indicated they have terminated production deals, some of which would have produced spec scripts for possible pilots.

One aspect of the TV business the strike seems likely to affect: the networks' lavish upfront presentations to advertisers and the media, which take place each May. NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker last week said he was considering canceling the network's presentation, instead meeting with advertisers in smaller groups.

It's a reasonable stance. The presentations are costly; they speak broadly to marketers who want to devise very specific plans; and they are out of sync with the times, when advertisers are showing interest in spending flexibly rather than plunking down millions of dollars in May for programming that runs in the fall.

"We are all reassessing," said Leslie Moonves, CEO of CBS Corp. While upfront ad sales will take place in some form, he said, "how big the show will be -- that's the question."

Smaller production
And as long as the writers strike threatens to squeeze dry the development of scripted programs for next year, why would a network put on a presentation when there's little to sing and dance about? And Mr. Zucker and his new entertainment chief, Ben Silverman, already are rethinking how they order pilots and find new shows to produce. Should the writers strike conclude by mid- to late February, things may not change this year. But if the strike continues and forces a scrapping of the vaunted Oscars, a new system for doing ad business on network TV could become a necessity.

So far, analysts say, the broadcast networks have escaped the worst. Even without new episodes of "24" or "Gossip Girl" on the air, marketers have been loath to pull ad commitments because it's hard to match broadcast TV's reach, and ad time not purchased in last year's upfront has become tight and pricey.

"As far as the fallout, we should start to see it later on this quarter" if the strike continues, said Jamie Rizzo, media analyst at Fitch Ratings.
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