Strike worries web heads

Work stoppage may be inevitable

The network entertainment presidents hope to avoid actors’ and writers’ strikes next year, but the toppers admit that a work stoppage is probably inevitable.

Speaking to a packed house at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s annual entertainment prexy luncheon, the execs spelled out their contingency plans for next fall if production is disrupted by a work freeze at the labor guilds.

CBS Entertainment president Nancy Tellem said she held out hope for a resolution, especially given that contract deadlines are still months away.

“It would be a tragedy,” Tellem said of potential strikes. “We’re still suffering from the last strike in 1988. We have to do everything we can to resolve this.”

NBC Entertainment president Garth Ancier said he expected to face strikes next year because the disputed issues, specifically dealing with residuals, were so “intrinsic.”

“We’ll try to keep a semblance of our schedule on the air,” Ancier said. “But this will be devastating to storyform television.”

Ancier and his peers have already discussed plans to order additional episodes of existing series. The Peacock has also ordered a new, third “Law & Order”-branded show, set to begin production now for next season, and has a host of reality series in the works, including the space contest “Destination: Mir.”

‘Mir’ fears

The network toppers all expressed mixed concerns about “Mir” and the competing international space station/NASA project being pitched by Dreamtime.

Ancier said he didn’t think NASA would agree to shoot a civilian into space.

“NASA’s not doing that,” Ancier said. “We asked NASA, and they said absolutely, categorically not. If they would do it, we’d do it with them.”

ABC Entertainment Television Group co-chair Stu Bloomberg expressed concern about both space projects. “I think you have to do a gut check,” he said. “In the end we didn’t feel comfortable (with the ‘Mir’ project).”

As for reality TV in general, the network toppers said they won’t shy away from the genre, especially if the shows are well produced, but they don’t want it to become a crutch either.

“We’re committed to it as a programming form,” Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman said. “And we’ve been burned by it. But we’re excited by what we have in development.”

D.C. spin

As for programming concerns coming out of Washington, the entertainment toppers defended their primetime content.

“I think the TV industry has done a terrific job of policing itself,” Tellem said. “Ultimately, it’s the parents’ responsibility to make sure kids aren’t watching inappropriate shows.”

WB Entertainment president Susanne Daniels said the network has never run ads for R-rated movies during family-oriented programming such as “7th Heaven.”

“We take these things very seriously,” said Berman. “We also take censorship very seriously.”

Bloomberg said members of ABC’s standards and practices department have not only viewed R-rated movie trailers before they air but have even watched entire movies before deciding whether the spots are suitable for the network.

Ancier said he wasn’t embarrassed by anything on TV, “with the exception of Dr. Laura.”

Covet thy neighbor’s show

As is traditional at the annual HRTS web head luncheon, moderator Larry King asked the six entertainment toppers to name a new show from a competing network they’d like to have.

The execs seemed most envious of the CBS development crop, with the Eye’s comedies “Welcome to New York” and “Bette” both receiving multiple mentions.

” ‘Welcome to New York’ is a smart, urban show,” Ancier said. Bloomberg agreed and added that he’d also like to have “Bette”; ditto Daniels, who called both Wednesday shows “a terrific hour of television.”

Berman quipped that Daniels and the WB “have a couple of shows I like a lot,” a somewhat veiled reference to the Frog’s recent acquisition of a new drama about the teenage Clark Kent from Warner Bros. Television and Tollin/Robbins Prods. Berman and Fox made a strong bid for the skein.

Turning serious, the Fox Entertainment topper said she wouldn’t mind owning the Eye’s “Fugitive” or ABC’s midseason half-hour starring Denis Leary.

Tellem and UPN prexy of entertainment Tom Nunan said they didn’t covet any new shows.

“I love our development,” Tellem said, adding that of her competish’s returning skeins, she’d be happy to have “The West Wing,” “Malcolm in the Middle” or “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Nunan said UPN might like Fox’s “The Street” if it were a half-hour.

King later pushed the execs to identify which nights would pose the most problems for their respective webs this fall; all zeroed in on Friday as a key battleground.

Elsewhere during the session:

  • Asked about the future of UPN, Nunan said that the netlet had been assured that it would survive throughout at least this season, “and then some.”

    Nunan later clarified that an official deal hadn’t yet been sealed with the Chris Craft stations to extend its affiliation agreement through the end of the year, but that the netlet was “encouraged” by ongoing talks and was forging “full speed ahead” for the season.

  • Berman, the newest member of the Gang of Six, said her biggest challenge since arriving at Fox last summer has been dealing with the sheer size of the net and its parent company, News Corp. A veteran of small companies, Berman now finds she’s “cc-ing myself to death.”

  • King asked the toppers to rate their own job security on a scale of one to 10. Ancier gave himself the worst odds: “I’d say a five. Fifty-fifty.” Tellem gave herself a six; Bloomberg figured that with partner Lloyd Braun, he was worth a 10. Daniels said the pending merger of WB parent Time Warner with AOL upped her survival rating to “an eight or nine,” the same number Nunan gave himself — albeit for a different reason.

    “I don’t know anyone else who wants this job,” the UPN exec joked.

    Newbie Berman was given a pass on the question.

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