The 5-week-old walkout by 10,500 members of the Writers Guild of America took a turn for the worse last week, when talks between writers and industry executives collapsed amid harsh words. Now both sides are bracing for a long standoff.
If the strike isn't settled by early in the new year, the absence of new scripts will narrow the pipeline of movies headed to theaters starting in late 2008. For the top broadcast networks, the impact would be more immediate: The rest of this TV season could be a virtual washout, cluttered with reality shows and repeats as the networks run out of fresh episodes of sitcoms and dramas.
The development of new shows for next season already has come to a standstill, jeopardizing the calendars for networks' lucrative ad-selling ritual in the spring and their traditional rollout of new shows in September. Meanwhile, a wide swath of the entertainment business in Hollywood and beyond is — or soon will be — unemployed, with tens of thousands of makeup artists, truck drivers and others caught in the strike's crossfire.
"It'll hurt us all," Oscar-winning writer/director Paul Haggis (Crash), who was on the picket line Monday at Sony Studios, says of the strike's impact. He says studios are repeating their playbook from the last writers' strike, which lasted 22 weeks in 1988 until they "broke us and we took a huge rollback" in pay for syndicated series.
With so much at stake, can cooler heads prevail soon? "I'm not real hopeful," says Denis Leary, who writes and stars in the FX firefighter drama Rescue Me. The show, with no completed scripts, has delayed plans to begin filming its fifth season next month.
With talks at an impasse, networks this week resorted to long-range plans for alternative — and cheap-to-produce — programming. There has been talk of running repeats of cable series, shows produced overseas and even mixed martial-arts competitions to fill what could be a lengthy void. NBC has picked up Quarterlife, a drama series about twentysomethings that has appeared on the Internet. The show initially was a failed pilot at ABC.
"This is the time to look past March," NBC scheduling chief Vince Manze says. "You have to come up with plans now, because the news coming out of negotiations was not good."
The dispute causing all the turmoil focuses largely on a demand by writers: They want a guaranteed cut of the revenue resulting from Internet streaming and downloads, a tiny but rapidly growing segment of show business.
Top writers on TV shows and movies can make $1 million a year or more. But for most TV and movie writers, job security is traditionally low; half of those on strike typically are unemployed at any given time. The guild says that overall, its members make an average of $62,000 a year.
As the strike wears on, here's what to look for:
1. A cold winter
The strike's effect on prime-time TV has been minimal so far, but viewers of most shows will see a falloff in new episodes after New Year's.
Top series such as ABC's Grey's Anatomy and CBS' CSI have one or two new episodes left to air, while most comedies — including NBC's The Office and CBS's Two and a Half Men— have run out.
Networks are hastily assembling replacement schedules heavy on reality programming, but they have a few scripted series that were held for midseason, including ABC's Lost, NBC's Law & Order and Medium, and CBS' The New Adventures of Old Christine. However, such shows will have fewer episodes than initially planned.
Network programmers are preparing for the worst. Apart from the occasional megahit such as Fox's American Idol, reality shows and TV newsmagazines have proved less attractive to viewers recently than the more expensive sitcoms and dramas they'll replace.
A taste of what's to come: An ABC game show called Here Come the Newlyweds; a new NBC show, The Baby Borrowers, in which teen couples "adopt" tykes as a test of parenting skills; and NBC's revival of American Gladiators, the 1990s sports competition show that included spandex-clad contestants in jousting matches
So far, advertisers haven't bailed out of buying ad time from networks; they have few other options to reach large numbers of TV viewers. But declining ratings likely will force networks to cut ad rates and offer bonus spots or refunds when audiences dip below previously guaranteed levels. That scenario could cost the networks tens of millions of dollars.
Magna Global USA predicts total TV audience levels will decline by 5% in January compared with last year and by 13% in May, assuming the walkout eliminates the rest of the traditional TV season.
The decline will be more severe among some top broadcast networks, as the supply of original scripted series dwindles. But that could be good news for American Idol, which remains TV's top series going into its seventh year but saw its ratings dip last season.
The impact on cable will be milder: Most channels rely heavily on unscripted programming, repeats of network series or movies. Those that air original series will see seasons delayed or shortened.
Some observers wonder whether viewers, already distracted by the Internet, video games and other media and entertainment outlets, will be lost for good.
"There's been a lot of talk about how … this is the worst time for a strike, the YouTubes and MySpaces of the world will get a major boost, that viewers will develop other habits and many will not return," says Magna analyst Steve Sternberg. He calls the fears "nonsense" and says that "the impact on TV viewing, even during a lengthy strike, will be negligible."
John Rash, head ad buyer at Campbell-Mithun in Minneapolis, says TV "is a long-ingrained habit for many," so viewers simply will choose other programming to embrace. But they could further erode the dominance of the major networks.
2. The return of the late shows
The strike's first fallout was felt on late-night talk shows, which are produced daily and shut down when the strike began Nov. 5. The shows, or their hosts, have been paying most of the shows' non-writing staffs since then.
But that won't continue indefinitely, and hosts including Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan O'Brien will have to decide whether to side with writers by staying on the sidelines or return to work to keep their non-writing staffers employed.
Late-night producers say they initially made no plans to return to the air while striking writers were negotiating, but now that talks are at a standstill, all bets are off. They soon will decide on a return date, and some top shows are eyeing Jan. 7 on their calendars.
Some will have an easier time than others: Comedy Central's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, favorites among coveted young viewers, rely heavily on scripted material and would be difficult to restart without their staff writers. On the other hand, O'Brien and Letterman lean more on improvisation and could simply dispense with monologues and expand celebrity interviews.
NBC's little-watched Last Call With Carson Daly resumed with new episodes last week, without the show's four writers. Daly's return was met with picketers.
3. A calendar in turmoil
Just as viewers start sampling new series each fall, the networks busily begin the process of developing newer shows that eventually will replace them. The pilot season kicks into high gear in winter, as sample episodes are written, ordered, cast, shot and delivered to the networks. The networks choose which shows to air and assemble a fall schedule to be touted to advertisers at lavish presentations each May.
Now that already chaotic process is threatened. Networks say a strike lasting past mid-February would upend their calendar and delay plans to pick a new schedule in May and then sell the bulk of ad time "upfront" in June.
It could create a year-round development cycle, which networks have talked about for years. If so, they'd ditch or scale back the lavish spring presentations for advertisers in New York.
"With each passing week, it looks more likely that the conventional way we've done business becomes more and more in jeopardy," says Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly.
"One of the few potentially positive outcomes of this is that the business can benefit from shaking up a process that could use shaking up."
"Advertisers in general would appreciate" such a move, says Tim Spengler, a top ad buyer at Initiative Media. "Moving the process to a calendar year would give marketers more time to get their budgets set."
4. Season starts … whenever
Strike or no, summer probably would look much like this winter, with a load of reality TV. But such shows could suffer after so much exposure in winter and spring. Starting in February, for example, CBS plans to air Big Brother — until now a summer-only staple — three nights a week.
Cable networks, which use summer to launch original series such as TNT's The Closer, USA's Monk and FX's Rescue Me, won't have them by then, either.
But unlike past years, a long strike means viewers won't see the usual mid-September flood of network newcomers.
Under one scenario, several holdover series with less-than-hit ratings — such as NBC's Chuck and Life or ABC's Pushing Daisies and Dirty Sexy Money —would get the go-ahead for more episodes after a strike settlement, for airing in late spring or early fall.
Then the "new" season would be pushed back several months as fewer episodes of new series are cycled in.
Fox has a version of this plan in place. For the past few years, its performance has been weak each fall, then rebounded with the arrival of Idol (and shows that ride its coattails) in January.
5. Movies to feel it in late '08
The long lead times required to produce, edit and market films means there'll be little disruption on that front until late next year.
Major studios are expected to snap up independent films from the festival circuit to plug holes in release schedules as development of new projects is delayed further.
Even so, as the strike drags on, "It's going to start affecting people very seriously after the beginning of the year," says Frank Marshall, producer of the Indiana Jones and Bourne franchises.
He predicts a feeding frenzy once the strike ends, as filmmakers compete for in-demand actors to refuel their pipeline.
"There will be a lot of movies starting up that have great parts," Marshall says, "and it will be an interesting race to see who will get who."
They might get none: Screen Actors Guild members' contracts expire in June, and they're fighting industry executives over the same issues.