TV industry prepares for negotiations

Television: A strike by TV writers could change network programming for years to come (read: more reality shows).

January 22, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES - You might not think network television could get worse. But starting today, the Writers Guild of America and the giant multi-national corporations that now run Hollywood will begin two weeks of contract talks that almost everyone here believes will end in a strike that will change network television forever - and for the worst.

What's at stake for the players in Hollywood are billions of dollars in future revenue and residuals primarily connected to the future sales of U.S. television series and feature films abroad. But viewers also have a big stake in the outcome.

The effects of a possible writers' strike are already being seen in America's living rooms as the second great wave of reality programming started washing across our television screens this month with ABC's "The Mole," Fox TV's "Temptation Island" and WB's "Popstars."

The reason for so many reality shows is not just the tremendous success last summer of CBS' "Survivor," but also the fact that they don't require scripts from Guild members. The networks now refer to reality series like "Survivor" as "non-scripted fare."

The networks are also currently trying to stockpile episodes of such top series as NBC's "Law & Order," so that they will have fresh fare to put on the air even if the talks fail to avert a strike. Some writers, actors and producers have been working around the clock for several months to make the extra episodes, but their flawed work, which is already showing up on the screen, is making prime-time network TV look even worse than usual.

"Everybody is exhausted. Production is being pushed. Mistakes are going to be made," Peter Roth, the president of Warner Bros. television, said here last week. Roth's studio makes such series as "Friends," "ER" and "The West Wing." It has more hit series than any other production company in Hollywood.

"From the network point of view, ordering additional episodes can stave off the worst of going off the air with original fare. But I absolutely question the qualitative impact of this kind of rushed production," he added.

Roth has been one of the most straightforward of the studio heads in talking about the strike.

"I think a strike would be devastating," he said. "And the impact is not simply the number of jobs that would be lost, which is incalculable. Nor is it the impact on the economy of Los Angeles, which is also devastating. The real impact is on the viewer."

Roth said that in 1988, the networks lost 9 percent of their audience following a five-month writers' strike; the viewers simply never came back.

"And that was at a time when there was a triopoly of three networks. There weren't nearly as many alternatives for viewers. Imagine today, now almost 12 years later, with the proliferation of choices for the viewer. A strike drives viewers away from network television at a time when we can least afford it," he said.

Roth is not alone in his assessment. In a panel discussion here last week, all seven of the studio chiefs on the dais said they believe a strike is inevitable. And all shared in Roth's sense of such a strike having dramatic and long-term negative effects on television as we know it.

"Between the downturn in the economy, in general, and therefore the ad market - along with the continuing erosion of the network television audience - this is a horrible moment for a strike to hit," said David Kissinger, president of Studios USA, which produces such series as "Law & Order."

"It's going to be devastating," added Dana Walden, president of 20th Century Fox Television, the home of "Ally McBeal," "NYPD Blue," "The Simpsons" and "The Practice."

Even though they make the TV shows we see and are the actual employers of the writers and producers who make them, the studios are actually in the middle of the fight. On one side are the writers - and, by extension, the actors, whose contract expires on July 1 and who have expressed their solidarity with the writers. The president of the Writers' Guild is John Wells, co-executive-producer of "The West Wing." On the other side are the networks in the form of the giant media conglomerates - like General Electric, Disney and Viacom - that own them.

Both sides sound like they are ready for war.

"We have made plans. We have a number of reality shows that are in stages ready to go that we'll try out in the spring," said Scott Sassa, president of NBC West Coast.

"We also have made plans by purchasing `Law & Order III: Criminal Intent' [a second spinoff of "Law & Order" from producer Dick Wolf], and we'll air 13 episodes of that. Dick Wolf has been incredibly helpful in doing extra episodes of `Law & Order' and `Law & Order: Special Victims Unit' for next year," Sassa said.

"We've had strike planning meetings on a bi-monthly basis for about 10 months now getting ready for this," he added.

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