Networks in Strike Mode
Fox, With Heavy Reality Lineup, Looks to Fare Best if Stoppage Is Protracted
With writers planning to go on strike today, the television networks late last week were readying their contingency plans.
NBC and CBS are bracing to lose their late-night originals and readying to replace their talk shows with repeats.
NBC is expanding "The Biggest Loser" from 90 minutes to two hours, squeezing out "The Singing Bee," which is one of the few unscripted prime-time shows employing guild writers. (Fox’s similar "Don’t Forget the Lyrics" is non-union and will continue.)
Any plans for freshman series pickups have been put on hold, while shows on the bubble such as CBS’ "Cane," Fox’s "K-Ville" and ABC’s "Big Shots" are more likely to run out their scripted inventory than face an early ax.
While experts agree that all the networks will face steep challenges, they think Fox is best positioned to maintain its seasonal dominance.
"All of the networks will suffer, but it’ll depend on how well they’re able to scramble to get material on the air," said Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. "Fox will have an easier time. They have one less hour to fill, which cuts their needs by one-third, and January has ‘American Idol,’ which they can stretch out."
Still, Fox’s "House" is the second-highest-rated series on the air so far this season. Networks have about five completed episodes remaining of their scripted shows, and most are expected to drop into repeats or reality by January if there’s a strike.
Should a strike stretch into the new year, "24" could be delayed. The Fox drama relies on running an entire season straight through and it’s unlikely Fox would opt to risk airing a partial season; it reportedly has eight episodes completed.
The network has a strong reality division. It recently picked up "Kitchen Nightmares" for a full season, and is shooting two seasons of "Hell’s Kitchen" and its upcoming lie detector reality series "Nothing but the Truth." But other fall reality efforts, such as "The Next Great American Band" and "Nashville," have stumbled.
NBC is expected to take a quick hit to its late-night block, but it is planning to pull content from its cable networks, USA, Bravo and Sci Fi Channel. The network also has an ample amount of game shows and reality programs coming, including "1 vs. 100," "American Gladiators," "Amnesia," "My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad" and "Celebrity Apprentice."
Still, aside from "Sunday Night Football," NBC’s biggest ratings drivers are the scripted shows "Heroes," "Law & Order: SVU" and "The Office." (There has been some consideration given to airing the British version of that comedy.)
"NBC and ABC rely most on distinctive dramas, and those will be hit hardest if the strike is prolonged," said John Rash, senior VP at Campbell Mithun.
At first blush, ABC’s position seems among the more precarious. The network opened the season with eight freshman scripted shows, more than any other network. On average, the shows have performed well, and ABC is leading the season.
But if there’s a strike, ABC is going to be left with a bunch of new series at a vulnerable moment—shutting down just when they have started to develop a loyal audience.
That said, ABC’s strategy last year to renew a large number of shows for midseason has given the network a stockpile of scripted inventory. And because the freshman shows are supporting their time periods just fine, there’s no hurry to put them on. Plus, ABC has reality titan "Dancing With the Stars" among other unscripted projects.
Some have speculated that ABC, like NBC, could pull content from its cable networks, but sources say ABC plans to stick with its own shows.
Like Fox with "24," however, ABC could face a tough call with fan favorite "Lost"—mdash;whether to run an incomplete season of the serialized drama.
Shari Anne Brill, senior VP and director of programming at Carat, said serialized shows will be particularly impacted, since a long hiatus was shown last year to damage ratings.
"I just don’t think anyone can come out a winner the longer this takes," she said.
CBS has the seven-episode second season of "Jericho" ready to fire and some episodes of comedy "The New Adventures of Old Christine." Unscripted projects include "Power of 10," "Do You Trust Me," "Million Dollar Password," "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race," which began airing Sunday.
CBS’ traditional strength—its stable collection of dramas—could prove a vulnerability if the strike drags into next year, however.
CBS’ popular Monday comedy block, as well as other networks’ traditional sitcoms, likely will go dark quicker than their drama counterparts. Sitcom scripts tend to be tweaked throughout the production process, right up until filming.
The CW already was planning a heavy surge of reality for midseason, including "Crowned," "Farmer Wants a Wife," "Pussycat Dolls" and another outing of top-rated "America’s Next Top Model."
But new scripted series "Gossip Girl," "Reaper" and "Aliens in America"—all of which are already struggling in the ratings—could be seriously harmed by a disruption.
The one broadcast network not sweating a strike was MyNetworkTV. Although the network has scripted ambitions, its current lineup largely consists of second-run movies, reality shows and celebrity specials.
Andrew Krukowski contributed to this report.