Miércoles 14 de Noviembre de 2007, Ip nº 216

Tim Goodman: What a writers strike would mean for viewers
Por Tim Goodman

It hasn't been a very good year so far in the TV season - viewership is down, the freshman shows are mostly unappealing, and even some returning favorites seem to lack spark. But the Writers Guild of America contract runs out at midnight tonight - trick or treat? - and a strike would make everything exponentially worse.

The end of the contract doesn't necessarily mean there will be a strike. If TV and movie writers, who provide material for networks, cable channels and film studios, believe good-faith bargaining is under way, they could agree to work without a contract as talks continue.

Then again, they could walk.

There's little doubt that such a strike, if prolonged, would be bad news for TV lovers and to a lesser extent film fans. The continuous nature of TV production means the television industry would feel the impact first. So what would happen in television if there's a strike?

Reality shows and reruns, probably. Game shows. News magazines. Imports. By all accounts, the networks and cable channels have a game plan, even though nobody has been talking about it. That's because everybody still has hope, despite contentious bargaining stances struck by both the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

The core issue is compensation, but after that it gets infinitely more complicated. In short, the WGA is looking for its writers to get a share of whatever work is sold online - downloads, streaming video, etc. This new-media battle is particularly important to the WGA, whose a membership largely believes past contracts involving DVD sales have been ruinous to writers. They don't want to get left out of profit sharing that technology often brings (and they also want to rework part of the DVD profit sharing).

The producers say the WGA demands would cripple networks and studios and have a chilling effect on the rush to new distribution platforms.

What does it mean for you? Well, for starters, if the writers do walk out, late-night programs like "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" as well as the nightly talk shows with David Letterman, Jay Leno, etc. would be the first hit. They would be in reruns almost immediately.

But the real impact - depending on how the networks react to a strike - would come near the middle of January, when most series on the air would run out of episodes. Because episodes are created on various timetables, there would be a staggered end to series. You might get more "Heroes" and fewer "Pushing Daisies." But it's unlikely that any shows would get past 10 episodes.

That would cause an economic disaster for the February sweeps period. Some series, like "24" and "Lost," are scheduled to start in January and February, which also happens to be when many midseason series, currently on the network benches, would also launch. Networks could avoid January premieres entirely in favor of launching them in February sweeps. But that's just the old Titanic deck-chair strategy.

Historically, when networks run out of fresh episodes, viewers flee. (Then again, with the popularity of unscripted series at an all-time high, who knows what may catch the nation's fancy - and don't think writers aren't worried about that.) Many niche cable channels already have filmed entire seasons (for example, "Nip/Tuck" and "The Shield" on FX, or "The Wire" on HBO), so limited solutions could be found there. The networks and their 22-episode series commitments have more at stake.

And while Fox can destroy everyone with "American Idol" come January, and other networks have stockpiled reality shows and unscripted series galore, by no means does a steady diet of that placate advertisers. At some point, a glut of unscripted series will take on a cheap sameness, and Americans will turn off their sets. The networks say that roughly 10 percent of their audience never came back after the last writers strike in 1988, but other factors could have been in play then.

In 2007 there's the Internet, and there are countless new DVD options, many of them television series that people missed and want to catch up on. So a downturn in real-time television would be a certainty.

The big unknown is how much work already has been completed - that will be the real test of how far networks can stretch. Networks and cable channels have known for a long time now that a strike was a possibility and have fast-tracked new series and, as the strike deadline approached, asked for a rush on scripts. (Any script that is completed - whether the series is currently on the air or not - could be shot while the writers are on strike. The Directors Guild of America's and the Screen Actors Guild's contracts don't expire until June 30, and the unions have instructed their members to go to work regardless of a WGA strike.

If writers walk out on Thursday, there are two longer-term issues. Freshman series that haven't established a core audience could be canceled. Viewers are more likely to come back to a hit, like "Grey's Anatomy," that went into reruns rather than watch a new fall series like "Life" - loyalty matters.

And there's the issue of next season. If a strike drags on, pilots for next year (most of them pitched but not finished until December) will be delayed. That puts off filming, etc. It tinkers with the machine. And the machine doesn't like to be off schedule.

While it may be tempting for viewers to shrug off the potential loss of some of this season's weaker offerings, does anyone really want to see more newsmagazines and three straight hours of unscripted programming? Stewart, Colbert, Letterman and Conan in repeats? Or, not to put too fine a point on it - repeats in general?

Oh, you can act all confident now that your TiVo is full and your Netflix list is stocked. But what happens when the story lines in your favorite series start getting really great - then get rudely and abruptly interrupted?

Well, yeah, then irony sets in. A writers strike becomes a cash cow for the book industry.


  31/10/2007. SFGate.com.