Cable May Face Hot Summer After WGA Strike Resolution

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If the writers’strike is settled next week, cable TV’s newest crop of original scripted shows could still be ready to debut this summer.

But the medium may not have completely dodged the bullet.

Cable’s shows could face atypical summer competition -- from new broadcast TV episodes. Once production of broadcast shows resume, the airing of new installments could spill past May, depending on how they are rescheduled.

“If it’s resolved relatively soon, cable will have more competition with original broadcast programming than it would normally have had in any average year,” said Bill Carroll, director of programming for the Katz Television Group.

The entertainment industry faces much uncertainty as it waits to see whether the Writers Guild of America signs off on a tentative agreement that its leaders reached with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

This Saturday, Feb. 9, the WGA has scheduled two “informational” meetings with its members in Los Angeles and Manhattan, to go over the terms of that proposed deal. If the contract is well-received by the WGA rank and file, the union could order its members back immediately, while the contract goes through the ratification process.

Once the strike is officially over, it will take four to six weeks for production to ramp up and start on new episodes of broadcast and cable shows, one studio official said.

The strike has had more of an impact on the broadcast networks than cable because the Big Four were in the midst of airing their new fall programming, and had to end production of those shows mid-stream after the strike started Nov. 5

In contrast, most cable channels weren’t yet in production because they don’t usually premiere their scripted shows until the summer, when the broadcast networks take “vacation.”

If the strike were to drag on for a few more months, production of cable’s summer shows would be scuttled. But even once the strike is settled, cable will face the uncertainty of waiting to see how broadcast decides to schedule its programming post-strike.  

“I am sure all networks are discussing many possibilities and contingency plans,” said Jack Wakshalg, Turner Broadcasting’s chief research officer. “We are, like probably everyone else in the industry, monitoring the situation closely and considering a number of different options that allow us to adjust to whatever happens. The TV landscape continues to be very competitive and good programming, be it seasoned hits or originals like The Closer, Saving Grace and Monk, will continue to resonate with viewers.”

If in fact the strike is settled, broadcasters will have to make quick, hard decisions about how they will proceed with interrupted seasons of scripted series such as ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives and Fox’s House.

After consulting about logistics with studios and writers, the Big Four will have to determine whether to order production on the remaining episodes of scripted shows; how many installments to go forth with; and whether to run them during the remainder of this season -- possibly extending into the summer -- or bank them for next season.

It’s likely that at the very least, in some cases the broadcast networks will have to produce enough new episodes to provide programming fare for May, which is a sweeps period.

And if broadcasters do order the full season of show, 22 episodes each, “it’s likely that some of the series would still be running through the summer,” Carroll said.

That possibility doesn’t daunt Wakshlag.

“A couple of weeks in the summer are unlikely to move the needle much from the path we have become familiar with,” he said. “Broadcast will hit all-time record lows.”

Brad Adgate, Horizon Media’s senior vice president and director of programming, suspects that broadcast won’t run shows past May, but rather will save episodes for next season, rather than burn them off this summer.

“I think there’s some concern [from broadcasters] that after Memorial Day, usage levels really drop and people start to migrate to cable,” he said “I have to presume cable is still going to embark on its ambitious summer programming schedule that’s worked so well for it.”

A Big Four executive agreed with Adgate, noting it was unlikely that broadcasters would present their best programming forward during the summer months.

On the cable side, the strike has impacted several shows, postponing production of Army Wives, Lifetime Television’s hot summer hit last year, as well as FX’s Rescue Me and Damages.

And FX only received part of its initial orders for Nip/Tuck, Dirt and The Riches. FX already has been running the Nip/Tuck installments it had in the can, and in March will debut the seven episodes it has each of 13-show orders for Dirt and The Riches. The network has decided not to produce the so-called “back end,” remaining six episodes each, of Dirt and The Riches for this season.

Sci Fi Channel later this month will start production on the fifth season of Stargate Atlantis. Since it is shot in Canada, it was never affected by the WGA strike.

And pre-production on AMC’s Mad Men will also begin this month because the show’s producer, Lionsgate, reached an interim deal with the WGA. Actually production will likely begin in late March or early April, with the show’s second season airing this summer.

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