Strike could speed ebb of network TV

Without new material during writers' walkout, viewers look elsewhere

November 06, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN REPORTER

There will be no Top-10 lists, no behind-the-scenes peeks into Jay's Garage, no Mess O' Potamia (or anything else), no eerie forecasts of what life will be like in the year 2000.

In fact, there likely will be no original late-night programming at all for the near future, at least not until show-business writers agree to end their strike and go back to work. The Late Show with David Letterman's lists will be blank, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno's garage will be padlocked. The Daily Show's reports on Iraq will go mute, and the crystal balls at Late Night with Conan O'Brien will reveal nothing.

When the Writers Guild of America went on strike beginning at 12:01 yesterday morning, it initiated a sequence of events that will have a domino effect on America's viewing audiences.

Ultimately, the legacy of a prolonged strike could reduce the audience for network TV at a time when it has already been losing viewers for years to cable, DVDs and the Internet. Numbers from May 2007 show that the combined viewership of the four major broadcast networks - ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox - dropped by 2.5 million from the previous spring.

"The last time there was a 22- to 23-week strike [in 1988], the networks lost 10 percent of their audience," says David Bianculli, TV critic for NPR's Fresh Air and tvworthwatch- ing.com. "That's a huge chunk, and they'll lose at least that much now. It's going to be more and more difficult to convince viewers to come back."

Nineteen years ago, many of those viewers turned to cable. But since then, other media have evolved, and it is those that form the crux of the dispute between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

The writers want to be paid when their work is viewed via the Internet; the producers say it's too early to say how profitable such media will prove to be and want to revisit the issue later.

Fans of late-night programming will be the first to feel the pangs of withdrawal. Many of the shows went into reruns beginning last night.

If the strike lasts into January or early February - as many observers think it will - network soap operas could run out of scripts. Later, prime-time drama and comedy series could turn to reruns or be replaced by news, reality or game shows.

Other entertainment

What happens when network television is forced to resort to six nights a week of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition?

Some viewers might find they like it just fine.

But others could abandon TV for such 21st-century entertainments as video games, YouTube and other Internet sites, none of which depends on WGA-covered writers for its material or on the television networks to find it an audience.

"As young viewers are moving away from TV as their delivery system for entertainment, the writers may find that they are more disposable than they would like to think," says Sheri Parks, who teaches media and popular culture at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"It is not always wise to test the loyalty of Americans to narrative TV."

As occurred during the last writers' strike, a 1988 work stoppage that lasted five months, ripped-from-the-headlines comic monologues proved the first casualty. NBC's Leno, CBS' Letterman and NBC's Conan all aired repeats last night, as did ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live and CBS' The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. NBC's Saturday Night Live is set to begin repeats this weekend.

In 1988, Letterman and the great Johnny Carson returned after a few months with shows that were largely ad-libbed, but the hosts' hearts - and pens - clearly weren't in it. Letterman once joked about bringing in a barber to shave him on-air, while Carson looked at snapshots taken by sidekick Ed McMahon.

Suds scripts

Next to feel the pain will be daytime television, especially the soap operas. ABC promises "original programming with no repeats and without interruption" into the new year. Likewise, NBC and CBS have enough scripts to make it through January.

The Oprah Winfrey Show's writers aren't covered by the WGA contract, so the most powerful woman on TV will remain on the air. The View, ABC's influential daily talkfest, issued a cryptic pledge yesterday that "contingency plans have been made in the event of a strike. The View will continue, without interruption."

It could take a while for viewers of prime-time television to notice any effect, as producers have been hoarding scripts for months in expectation of a strike and probably have enough product in hand to make it through the first quarter of next year.

But the strike, which has seen picket lines form in New York and Los Angeles, could affect a network's decision to stick with a struggling series or take chances on a new one. Already, NBC has put on hold plans for Heroes: Origins, a spin-off of its successful Heroes series that was set to be a midseason replacement.

A long strike could alter the landscape of network television by dictating an even greater reliance on reality and game shows, neither of which is covered under the WGA contract.

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