TV Execs Don't See a Quick Resolution to Writers Strike

At UBS Media Conference: CBS's Les Moonves, NBC's Jeff Zucker

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NEW YORK ( -- Top executives from two of the nation's five broadcast networks sounded pessimistic notes this week about prospects for an early resolution to the writers strike, even as they tried to suggest substitute programming in the interim would please both viewers and advertisers.
NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker and CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves
NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker and CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves Credit: AP

Speaking during separate interviews at the annual UBS Global Media and Communications Conference this week, NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker and CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves both indicated that an immediate end to the strike is not likely at hand. The situation "continues to be very unfortunate," said Mr. Zucker, speaking Monday. "I am hopeful. I am not terribly optimistic," said Mr. Moonves, during a question-and-answer session this afternoon.

The Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are slated to return to the negotiating table this afternoon. At issue in the strike, which commenced Nov. 5, is payment to writers for content that appears online, an increasingly common phenomenon given penetration of broadband connections in households.

Issue still taking shape
Both TV executives suggested it was hard to come to terms on an issue that was still taking shape. "We are trying to figure out what the world of new media will be," Mr. Moonves said. While content producers are entitled to a share of the pie, he continued, "right now, we don't know what that pie is."

In a further sign that an end to the strike is in the distance, not the horizon, both NBC and CBS have unveiled new schedules for January and February that include substitutes for the programs of which original episodes will no longer be available.

NBC, for instance, plans to bring new episodes of "Law & Order" to Wednesday nights starting Jan. 2, with sibling program "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" joining it Jan. 9. Those would replace "Bionic Woman" and "Life." CBS will replace Monday-night comedies "The Big Bang Theory" and "Rules of Engagement" with a new comedy, "The Captain," and a returning series, "The New Adventures of Old Christine." Both networks are also launching a bevy of reality shows across their schedules.

Already, late-night TV is largely in repeats, with media buyers suggesting their clients will ask for their ad money back if networks can't achieve the ratings they guaranteed during the upfront.

Ratings down, costs down
During his talk, Mr. Moonves said he recognized that "ratings probably will not be as high without the influx" of more original comedies and dramas, but noted that "costs will be down considerably."

The CBS executive suggested that ad dollars would continue to come in, however, because so-called scatter pricing, or prices for ads that need to be purchased on an as-needed basis closer to the time they run on-air, were tracking 35% above pricing for the upfront.

When a UBS analyst suggested media buyers were complaining that scatter was extremely tight because networks have had to carry forward make-goods (the name for ad time given in exchange for missing previous ratings guarantees), Mr. Moonves disputed the charge. While the analyst hinted scatter was so tight buyers could only get time during overnights and other off-peak viewing times, Mr. Moonves said CBS could accommodate desire for premium inventory for a good price. "If the pricing is right, we will sell," he said.
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