Robbing from Peter to pay Peter

Strike hinders primetime, helps cable

In the rhetoric surrounding the writers strike, some guild members perceive anything that highlights the studios’ advantages as a conspiracy to weaken labor’s resolve.

For them, consider this a spoiler alert.

Because scanning recent ratings puffery, it dawned on me that while major broadcasters are already exhibiting signs of flaccidity as the absence of big scripted hits takes hold, cable siblings to those same networks are potentially benefiting, sometimes in spectacular fashion.

This is not helpful for writers. Because if Fox’s drop is partially offset by heightened tune-in for Fox News Channel and FX as viewers explore alternatives, that simply amounts to robbing from Peter to pay Peter.

That would be News Corp. prexy Peter Chernin, whose flagship network is relatively well-positioned to weather a strike. Not only does Fox have “American Idol” coming in January — which could be even more popular against additional reruns and reality fill-in fare elsewhere — but the network programs a third fewer primetime hours than ABC, CBS and NBC. Fox is also flush with primetime sports during the first quarter, from the Bowl Championship Series to Super Bowl XLII.

By contrast, NBC has plenty of problems, starting with four additional hours to fill on Sundays once NFL football ends. Yet NBC, too, can derive some solace from its sister cablers: Record ratings for the mediocre Sci Fi Channel miniseries “Tin Man,” strong results for USA, growth from MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.” Indeed, even before the strike, NBC Universal touted cable as the company’s future while the struggling Peacock network’s importance recedes.

ESPN, meanwhile, delivered cable’s biggest audience ever last week with 17.5 million viewers for “Monday Night Football” — trailing only two broadcast telecasts, and narrowly eclipsing the record set in August by the Disney Channel’s “High School Musical 2.” Disney owns both those networks, softening the body blow ABC seems destined to absorb with “Grey’s Anatomy” and a resurgent “Desperate Housewives” sidelined.

The strike could thus hasten a trend that’s been inexorably building — further diminishing the major networks, once TV’s crown jewels, as components within their parent companies’ vast portfolios.

Cable’s ascendance, however, offers a decidedly mixed bag for talent: Yes, ratings success has emboldened those channels to invest more in original programming — thus creating new opportunities, from AMC’s “Mad Men” to Spike’s “Kill Point” — but many channels primarily rely on cheap unscripted fare, and those providing dramatic series do so more sparingly than the broadcast webs.

The studios, of course, have displayed swaggering bravado trying to frighten the guilds. Chernin told financial analysts that Fox would actually profit from savings associated with the strike, and his peers have publicly echoed those “All is well” sentiments, a bit like Humphrey Bogart bluffing water-starved Germans in “Sahara.”

This “Heads we win, tails you lose” attitude isn’t convincing and has made studios look callous toward the work stoppage’s collateral damage; nevertheless, networks can use the strike as convenient cover to pursue money-saving initiatives, from paring back pilot season (and reducing development costs) to axing the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour.

Granted, this won’t ease the pain for network execs. Having already seen most new programs falter, whatever momentum their few promising fall arrivals possessed is now being interrupted and deflated.

Thanks to diversified sources of income, though, when their bosses take inventory the impact appears less severe. The conglomerates can bite the bullet for awhile and even utilize lesser networks in a manner that promotes and showcases their wares. CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves, for example, has cited plans to raid Showtime’s pantry to freshen the Eye ‘s menu, although slicing the serial-killer drama “Dexter” down to fit broadcast TV standards frankly sounds like more of a headache than it’s worth, draining the show’s lifeblood while still irritating content watchdogs.

The bottom line is that while broadcast nets should conspicuously suffer if the strike drags on, compensating gains from cable could prolong those declines bringing the larger corporate behemoths to their knees.

As for this observation representing bad news for writers, it really articulates a difficulty that’s common to script writing — namely, once your narrative passes the point of persuasively devising a happy ending, it’s difficult to imagine a feel-good resolution.

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