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Hollywood strike could scuttle TV pilot season

If striking Hollywood writers do not reach a settlement with the studios in the next few weeks, the broadcast TV pilot season could be torpedoed. A long strike also could rattle the May “upfront” sales market, when the networks sell the bulk of their commercial time for the fall 2008 season.

So say a number of network executives and other industry sources, none of whom would speak on the record because of the sensitivity of labor negotiations.

Consider these scenarios: If the work stoppage, now in its fifth week, is not ended soon and writers aren’t back on the job by January 1, 25% of the usual number of pilots produced for next season would have to be scrapped.

If the strike lasts until February 1, the percentage rises to 50%. And if the strike persists well into February, the entire primetime development season would have to be jettisoned unless the industry decided to move the upfront back into late June or July.

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) evidently surprised the networks when it decided to strike November 4, only a few days after its contract expired. In its dealings with the networks’ news operations, the guild traditionally has worked well past the expiration of its contracts.

“The networks did not think a strike would be called so soon,” said one observer familiar with the network executives’ position. “Even though they tried to shoot some pilots earlier, they did not make enough progress on that.”

A WGA source pointed out that the timing of the strike was “specifically chosen at a point where we felt we would have the greatest impact and create the most leverage for us.”

But one network executive retorted that the more damage the guild does to the development process, the more damage it does to its members’ careers.

“Hampering the number of new shows the networks can put on the air next season is only going to adversely affect their jobs because there would be fewer projects to work on,” the exec said.

Another network executive questioned how vital new shows actually are to the upfront ad buying process.

“Most advertisers want to get into the most popular returning shows, and in buying upfront programming, they include some of the new shows in their packages,” the executive said. “But the new shows have no track record, so it is just a crap shoot anyway.”

ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox have between four and 10 scripted sitcoms and dramas each for next season in various stages of development, but only a few actually have shot pilots. And those pilots need additional work. The CW has greenlighted no new programming for next season.

“Even if a tentative agreement is reached by the negotiators within the next few weeks, it will take a few weeks after that to get the guild membership to vote to ratify it,” one network executive said. “And then it will take another few weeks to gear back up, with the first priority being to finish writing this season’s shows.”

Adding to the logjam is the fact that only 15%-20% of the guild’s writers are employed to write the broadcast network shows.

Many of the same writers who are working on this season’s shows would also be those writing pilots to be developed for next season. It’s going to be quite difficult for them to be writing for two shows at the same time.

“Usually there is some downtime for the writers when they finish up with scripts for existing shows and can move on to writing for developing shows,” one network executive said, “but the downtime from the strike is not going to allow that this season.”

The process for developing shows is a slow one. Once a script is accepted by a network, the entertainment executives then pore over it, making comments and suggestions. Meetings are then held to go over those suggestions until a final script is hammered out and approved. Casts must then be selected and table readings held before the pilot is shot.

Under normal circumstances, if a network decides to do 20-25 pilots, the process can last four or five months. And, traditionally, the networks barely get done in time for the May upfront. But taking a month so far, and possibly another month going forward, out of the process severely limits how many pilots each network can now realistically greenlight and get ready by the upfront.

As a result, the traditional May upfront presentation week may have to be altered, by either pushing it back a month or two or scrapping it in favor of individual meetings between the media buyers and the networks.

Either way, the longer the strike, the bigger the marketplace hassle.

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