Strike Sends Season Sliding
Nets May Crash Cable’s Summer Party
Once the writers strike is settled, broadcast networks are considering running scripted programming into summer to complete their season-order commitments.
Production on most comedies and dramas has either shut down or is close to it. At this point, regardless of when the strike ends, there’s going to be an on-air scheduling gap for many shows.
With writers and studios back at the negotiating table, networks are starting to wonder how they’ll schedule the remainder of their seasons should production resume.
Executives say such decisions will be made on a show-by-show basis involving a host of considerations: When the strike is settled, how many episodes of a series have aired, how many remain and how long before new episodes are completed. One key concern is whether there will be enough time to produce a series’ remaining episodes before production begins for the 2008-09 season.
But if networks need to roll episodes into summer to finish the season, executives indicated a willingness to punch through the spring boundary—to a point.
"The season is only a Nielsen construct," said Jeff Bader, ABC’s executive VP of scheduling. "We sell 52 weeks a year."
Historically, the network season has ended in May because fewer people watch television during the summer, lowering ratings and ad revenues, although that gap has shrunk considerably over the past decade.
Vince Manze, NBC’s president of program planning, scheduling and strategy, saw an upside to potentially extending the season.
"It would be terrific to start breaking these cycles," Mr. Manze said. "But you can’t go too far into summer. The [viewing levels drop], you start running into the Fourth of July. I’m thinking one or two shows, at most."
NBC faces a potential production crunch with "The Office" and "My Name Is Earl." The network ordered 25 half-hours of "Earl" and 30 of "The Office" (though the latter has aired four hourlong episodes as partial scheduling compensation).
CBS’ Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP of programming operations, said another factor is whether a show is serialized.
"It will depend on the nature of the show," Mr. Kahl said. "If it’s a serialized show, it may run longer. If it’s self-contained, maybe we wouldn’t."
In recent years, broadcasters have emphasized original reality shows and repeats of scripted series during the summer. The possibility of the season expanding could put a damper on cable networks, which take advantage of broadcasters going on vacation by airing original programming, drawing some of their highest ratings during the third quarter.
"[Broadcast] has suffered over the past years because of cable doing much better in the summer and then maybe some of these viewers not coming back," said Andy Donchin, director of broadcast for ad buyer Carat. "So I don’t think it would be the worst thing in the world for the networks to have original product in the summer if they could afford to."
Mr. Donchin said he didn’t think cable networks would be devastated if broadcasters extended their shows into the summer.
"I think it would be good for television, versus bad for cable. I think overall television would be the winner."
Cable network executives said they were beginning to examine whether they would have to alter their schedules if original episodes of broadcast shows air during the summer.
"If they’re going to be running in the summer, that’s going to impose on cable’s season," said one cable executive. "That’s why we started doing our originals there to begin with."
Last season a record number of networks launched expensive original scripted series in the summer. Almost as soon as broadcast finales aired, USA Network rolled out "The Starter Wife" and Lifetime uncorked "Army Wives."
That contributed to record ratings for ad-supported cable. Last summer, cable networks had a record 52% share of viewers 18 to 49, compared with 24% for the broadcasters.
But many cable networks now air original programming year-round. TNT has fresh episodes of "The Closer" and "Saving Grace" in December, while USA has originals of "Psyche" and "Monk" scheduled in January. FX has "Nip/Tuck" on the air now. Its season launched in September.
But even those networks usually try to avoid launching series in sweeps months, when the networks minimize reruns and air "very special episodes" of their shows. Until the strike is settled, it’s not clear what the cable networks will want to sidestep, other than Fox’s "American Idol."
Depending on how long the strike lasts, it might delay production of some of next summer’s cable shows, and networks are considering holding the original shows that are ready now for June, July and August.
Others say that when the broadcasters air their shows simply won’t affect them.
"We think we’re pretty well positioned regardless of whether the broadcast networks settle the strike and have fresh product," said Henry Schleiff, CEO of Crown Media, parent of Hallmark Channel. Hallmark has enough original movies already in production to take it through the summer, he said.
Mr. Schleiff said Hallmark’s family-friendly programming had appeal whether or not the broadcasters were airing originals. Its recent movie "A Grandpa for Christmas" was the network’s third-highest-rated ever.
"There is obviously an audience for this product year-round," he said.