TV biz making early plans for writers strike

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TV studio executives might try to nip the potential threat of a writers strike later this year by tucking away scripts or even shooting extra episodes of hit dramas and sitcoms.

The fledgling plan represents what a key management insider described as "phase one" of studio strike preparations. It's considered more important for TV execs than those in film to get a jump on planning for a possible writers walkout--the current Writers Guild of America contract expires October 31--so thus far it's mostly the TV divisions at major studios taking the most aggressive steps toward content stockpiling.

Teams on such hit shows as FX's Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me have been approached about producing more than the 13 episodes required to complete the current season, perhaps as many as 22 in total. Sources said some major studios have approached actors on their hit returning series about shortening show hiatuses to as little as six weeks to complete more episodes in the summer.

"Everybody is talking about series possibly returning (to production) after really short hiatuses to bank as many episodes as possible," a talent agent said.

Studios are said to be exploring the feasibility of moving the start of production of returning broadcast series from August to late May or early June, though no formal requests have been made. The plan is still in the feeling-out stage as a shortened time off could create problems for series stars, who often use the summer hiatus to do features.

For instance, 24 star Kiefer Sutherland is set to star in the Fox thriller Mirrors, which shoots in the summer. And others, including Grey's Anatomy regular Patrick Dempsey, are believed to be reviewing similar offers for big-screen summer paydays.

Additionally, industry sources indicate that talent and crews on such dramas as 24 and Lost--which boast elaborate location shoots--desperately need a breather between seasons and can't possibly mount a new production cycle so quickly. To accommodate such needs, some studios are considering keeping filming schedules intact but storing extra scripts that can be shot during a potential strike.

But where possible, TV studios aim to assemble show casts to shoot episodes they can stockpile for the fall or beyond. For some long-running procedural shows, such as the Law & Order and CSI franchises, studios choose to keep talent and crews in production beyond the scheduled wrap date rather than breaking and reconvening, sources said.

"We're just starting to hear kind of secondhand that the TV schedule might be switched around a little bit this year," Association of Talent Agents spokeswoman Karen Stuart said. "We are hearing that people might be brought back in after the May pickups much sooner than normal."

The prospect of a writers strike already is a conversational flashpoint of the ongoing pilot-casting season, with actors being advised that production on the new series could begin almost immediately after the networks pick up their new shows in May.

So for old shows and new, the next impact from prestrike preparations is likely to kick in around May. That's when networks stage their "upfront" presentations for advertisers and signal which shows will be returning and which won't.

It also will bear watching whether it's tougher to get dramas and comedies picked up because of the possible unavailability of scripts in the event of a strike by the WGA. Already, there are signs of increased reality-show activity this pilot season.

"There's a lot of talk about ramping up this next production cycle with more reality shows," said Craig Borders, a director-producer on such reality shows as Laguna Beach and The Mole. "One concrete sign is the marked increase of activity within companies who primarily produce reality shows. They're out shooting shows, whereas a year ago very few broadcast networks were purchasing much first-run reality shows. I'm developing several shows that I hope take advantage of this appetite for increased reality content."

Among those is a reality game show based on oil wildcatting in which one contestant and a "silent partner" can end up with a significant portion of a wildcat well, he said.

"The next trigger moment--and it's a big one--is around May and the upfronts," a management insider said. "Right now what they're doing is preparing. Every network is doing something different, (but) they're not going to tell each other, because they're competitors."

So while one network might opt to greenlight more reality projects for the period in question, another might lean toward sports, and a third might choose to produce more game shows or even news programming.

"And if you lose viewers during a strike to cable or to someone else's sports programming or news programming, you might not get them back after the strike," the insider noted.

Many suggest the rise of the TV newsmagazine format owes much historically to the WGA strike in 1988, when the format was used to fill troublesome slots and viewers embraced the programming.

Meanwhile, though it's less clear what specific movie projects will be impacted by early strike-threat preparations, some industryites suggest that the situation also is starting to affect certain areas of film activity.

"I'm sure certain studios have sped up some development of scripts," a well-placed industry observer said. "But then, there's the question you ask yourself of whether I can produce this script without a writer on board during production. Some will say yes. Some will say no because they might need rewrites or a scene added here or there. Or it might involve a big writer, and you don't mess with big-writer stuff."

On the TV side, de-facto strike conditions are a bit easier to track.

Once it becomes clear which shows are not returning, the networks will turn their sights in earnest to the question of how to program open slots--while bearing in mind the possibility of a writers strike in late 2007. And it would almost be equally disruptive to scripted programming were labor strife to break out in early 2008.

WGA execs say they expect to begin negotiations for a new contract in July, but many observers say they are likely to go several months before seriously considering any walkout. That's because contracts for the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America don't expire until mid-'08, and many believe the WGA will have increased bargaining power as those expirations draw closer.

Still, guild preparations for the various contracts talks also are under way. Just last week, the WGA named its negotiating committee and the DGA appointed a negotiating committee chairman.

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