Eye stockpiles, just in case

For shows that are on the greenlight fence, a threat of strikes could be good news.

The reason? Investing in strike insurance wherever they can, nets are more likely to pick up shows that might otherwise be canceled.

“You’re more apt to pick up a returning show in a strike because they’re a lot easier to get up and running faster,” says one industry insider. “Shows on the bubble will get saved.” On the flip side, there could be fewer pilots picked up in the case of strikes.

CBS topper Leslie Moonves acknowledges that “there is an advantage when you have a crew and writers in place.”

Since production work on shows — both new and returning — would need to begin by early August at the latest, any strike longer than three months would make it nearly impossible to get them on the air by the fall season.

At a CBS pre-upfront session last week, Moonves said he’s “hopeful, even semi-optimistic” that there won’t be a writers’ or actors’ strike, but if they come to pass, the Eye net is “very prepared.”

CBS has greenlit another season of “Big Brother” to air this summer; if there are strikes, “Brother” and a new reality skein, “The Amazing Race,” could be pushed to fall. The next installment of “Survivor” is already skedded to premiere in the fall.

Moonves told advertisers that CBS has three or four more reality projects in development. “You don’t need a lot of prep time with reality. There’s a lot more flexibility,” said Moonves.

In addition, the net has stockpiled a “huge inventory” of original movies and theatricals that could air in the event of a strike. The net’s newsmag franchises “48 Hours,” “60 Minutes” and “60 Minutes II” would also expand to fill any primetime holes.

Like CBS, in the event of a strike, the other nets will rely heavily on reality skeins, newsmags, sports programming and movies.

If the WGA has not signed a contract by May 2, the nets would have two options, according to WGA director of strategic planning Charles Slocum: either offer more reality shows, since those programs could be produced without WGA writers; or commit to pilots that have been produced inhouse, which will make it far easier to put on the air since they could deal directly with the WGA to reach an interim deal during a strike.

Slocum notes the first option is tricky since there may be little public appetite for even more reality shows. “We think the trend will swing back toward scripted shows,” he says.

Additionally, the WGA has established a foothold in the reality market. It recently signed first-time contract deals with production companies for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” that will exempt the writing staffs of those shows from a strike order if one comes this spring.

The agreements provide that terms of the contracts run through the termination of the next minimum basic agreement rather than the current agreement’s May 2 expiration. The next agreement would presumably expire in 2004 if the WGA signs the usual three-year deal in the current round of negotiations.

WGA spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden says the guild agreed to the lengthened contract expirations for the two shows in order to give union protection to what had previously been non-union shops.

As for the option of making interim deals, the Guild has not yet disclosed what its plans are although it’s widely expected to make them available.

Such deals allow companies to employ writers during a strike — either by agreeing to a contract containing terms of the last WGA offer on the table or whatever the eventual settlement is.

During the 1988 strike, which lasted for 22 weeks and delayed the start of the fall TV season, the WGA waited until the third month to offer interim deals. More than 70 companies eventually signed interim pacts in what the WGA viewed as a turning point of the strike.

Slocum indicates it’s likely that interim pacts would be floated if there is a strike since they would achieve the goal of contract improvements.

“Our goal is to have people producing under terms that are acceptable,” he adds.

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