Strikes for writers, TV actors still loom on horizon

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The commercial actors strike is over, but two more Hollywood strikes are looming that could affect the 2001-02 TV season.

Possible strikes against TV production entities could have a major effect on advertisers' TV media plans. Strikes could be called by actors and writers unions -- the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists and the Writers Guild of America -- against TV producers as well as movie studios.

The contracts are up in the spring. With no new episodes, networks would be forced to air reruns of existing shows or other non-union programming.

All this could affect TV advertising upfront deals placed by advertisers in May and June.

Industry watchers aren't yet putting odds on whether strikes will happen. Opinions differ whether unions, having just ended the longest talent strike in Hollywood history with the commercial actors, would be inclined to strike next year on a far bigger stage.

Because of lower-rated programming, advertisers might need to drastically shift their media budgets from original-acted series to other TV options -- such as reality shows, sports and news -- as well as print, Internet and other media if next TV season gets hit by Hollywood strikes.

For instance, big double-digit-rated network prime-time shows might slip into single-digit ratings because networks might have to air re-runs, according to industry watchers.

"You are going to have to buy non-acted dayparts," guessed Tim Spengler, exec VP of national broadcast for Initiative Media Worldwide, Los Angeles. "You'll buy more news, sports, late night, daytime, more cable, perhaps. Some women-targeted brands would move money out of prime-time broadcast. You would need [other] big-reach [media] vehicles. That's a guess."

Networks are already making contingency plans. Many are stockpiling episodes of shows this season for use next. NBC confirmed that its mainstay "Law & Order" will produce 29 one-hour shows this year, up from the usual 22 episode commitment.

Advertisers would have contingencies of their own -- especially during the upfront buying season. "There would be rollbacks or cashbacks," said Doug Seay, senior VP of national broadcast for Publicis & Hal Riney, New York. "The deal would be we are going to buy these shows with the understanding that the shows would be new and original."

Other ad agency executives said there would definitely be adjustments, as there were during the last commercial actors strike.

"We would go back to the networks and say, `The season is starting late. We are buying repeats and we are paying for originals. We want a rebate, we want a lower CPM,' " said Gary Carr, senior VP of national broadcast for Initiative Media Worldwide, New York.

Networks would have it a bit easier than when the last strike hit more than a decade ago, because fewer new episodes are now produced for an ongoing series. These repeats, as expected, already get lower ratings.

"Fifteen years ago there was a lot more original programming," said Mr. Carr. Now "more things on the air are reruns. Now they only make 20 or 22 episodes of network shows. And they are making a lot of reality shows."

Still, advertising executives say this is a bit too early to make actual strike plans. Said Mr. Carr: "We are a long way away from it, we are not at a crisis point yet."

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