In Depth

Cable Networks Primed for End of Writers Strike

When the Writers Guild of America strike ends, cable networks are poised to quickly get their original scripted programming back on the air.

“We’re waiting with bated breath,” said Jeff Wachtel, executive VP for original programming at USA Network. “We are likely to have more original scripted series on the air this summer than any network” if the strike is settled soon, he said.

Cable network executives said the timing of their development and pilot cycle allowed them to miss out on the worst of the writers strike, which has stopped shows in midseason on the broadcast networks and could alter the way the broadcasters prepare pilots for next season.

Even without new original programming, the cable networks have been getting higher ratings thanks to weakened competition from the broadcasters. In some ways, it’s a reprise of the last writers strike 20 years ago, when viewers defected from broadcast networks in numbers that the broadcasters never totally recouped.

Cable sales executives say the strike is feeding double-digit increases in ad prices and ad revenue in the first-quarter scatter market, and the second quarter is looking strong as well.

On the broadcast side, CBS CEO Les Moonves told analysts that he expects advertising revenue to be down due to the strike, but that programming costs also will be down so the company won't be taking a financial hit.

Among the broadcast networks, Fox probably was better insulated from strike-related business disruptions than the others, thanks to its reality-heavy lineup.

USA and other networks have shows already shot waiting to air, pilots produced and some summer series already greenlighted, just waiting for the writers to return. Executives said an incumbent scripted show could get back into production and on the air in as little as six weeks. A new show could be ready for air in 10 to 12 weeks.

USA has a new series, “In Plain Sight,” already shot. Veterans “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Monk,” “Psych” and “Burn Notice” will return. The network is working on turning its successful miniseries “The Starter Wife” into a series and has the pilot “To Love and Die” shot.

Turner Broadcasting expects to have its series “The Closer” and “Saving Grace” back for the summer. It recently gave the green light to “Raising the Bar,” a new courtroom series from Steven Bochco. Turner also is poised to make a decision on pilots for “Leverage” and “Truth in Advertising.”

FX is about to launch new seasons of “Dirt” and “The Riches.” Both seasons were shortened by the strike to seven episodes from 13.

The final season of “The Shield” is shot and scheduled to air after the Summer Olympics. FX expects to start working on more episodes of “Damages,” “The Riches” and “Nip/Tuck” as soon as the strike ends.

A pilot for a new FX series, “Handsome,” was shot before the strike started, and shooting is scheduled to start next week on another pilot, “Sons of Anarchy.”

A&E is set to get back into the original scripted drama business.

“Whether it’s smart planning or just luck, we’ve been in a pretty good position vis-a-vis the strike,” sand A&E President Bob DiBitetto.

The four-hour miniseries “The Andromeda Strain” is ready to air in late spring or early summer. The network is set to make green-light decisions on several shows that were developed early last year and have already been made into pilots: “The Cleaner” starring Benjamin Bratt, “The Beast” starring Patrick Swayze and “Under” starring Henry Thomas.

“We’d like to premiere the first show this summer. If the strike is resolved immediately, that would be perfect timing,” Mr. DiBitetto said.

Thanks to an interim agreement between the WGA and Lionsgate, writing has already begun on a second season of AMC’s first original series, Golden Globe winner “Mad Men.”

“Our writers’ room is open on ‘Mad Men,’ and we will be back in the summer with that,” said AMC executive VP and general manager Charlie Collier. “Fortunately for us, our cadence, at least what the viewers see, has been relatively unaffected.”

AMC last month launched a second series, “Breaking Bad,” with only nine of 11 originally planned episodes. The networks also got a large number of other series and miniseries in development.

“What we’re thrilled about is being able to take some of the projects and get back in the room with the writers and start to move those to the next level,” Mr. Collier said.