Long strike could ground pilot season

Latenight talkers, daytime sudsers and primetime multicam laffers will feel the pinch first, once TV writers hit the picket lines.

But should scribes and producers not hammer out a deal quickly, network and studio execs warn that much of pilot season could be tossed. And some even say that may not be a bad thing.

Meanwhile, once the last batch of hastily written scripts is shot — or deemed unproduceable — and the final notes are given on pilot scripts (which will then collect dust on someone’s desk), tube execs may suddenly have a little more time on their hands. Some may even be enlisted to help out on the reality side, where activity will be frenzied as nets look to fill the scripted void.

Here’s what may transpire at the networks and studios in the coming weeks, should a writer walkout drag on:

  • Latenight. NBC’s “Tonight Show” and “Late Night,” along with CBS’ “Late Show” and “Late, Late Show” are all expected to go dark today. Ditto Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report.”

ABC still wasn’t saying what would happen with “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” though odds suggest it’ll shut down, too.

Robert Morton, the former Letterman producer who was at the helm of NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” during the 1988 WGA strike, said Letterman and Leno feel compelled to back their union –even though, as performers, they could still be on the air Monday if they wanted.

“I think they have to show support for their writing staffs,” said the producer, who now heads Panamort Prods. (“The Mind of Mencia”). “Even if they want to go back, they have to give their writers due respect.”

It’s widely expected the major latenight skeins eventually will return to the air, as they did in 1988.

“You want to be supportive of your guild, but when you have people making $600 a week possibly losing their jobs, you have to think of them, too,” Morton said.

But while the skeins stayed dark for four months back then, it’s hard to believe Dave, Jay and company will keep mum that long this time.

One network insider thinks it could be at least several weeks, however — throwing a major monkey wrench in studios’ plans to hype their holiday movies.

Nets, eager to provide a hospitable environment for movie ads, may cooperate with studios by airing repeats featuring past appearances by actors who have current movies in release. A Letterman rerun featuring Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts could be slated the same week “Charlie Wilson’s War” opens.

Whenever the hosts return, it’s unclear what they will be able to do. They’re clearly allowed to perform under their AFTRA agreements, but they may not be able to write their own monologue jokes.

“It might look a lot like ‘host chat’ on ‘Regis and Kelly,’ ” one latenight insider said, predicting cue card jokes would be replaced by impromptu ramblings. “The hosts will just come out and talk about what’s going on.”

Those who remain on the shows will all have to struggle to fill airtime normally reserved for jokes and sketches. Morton recalls the last strike, when then-helmer Hal Gurnee came up with “Hal Gurnee’s Network Time Killers” to close up the gaps.

  • Current series: Right now, studio execs say they’ve got a month of production left to go on single-camera dramas and comedies — that is, if scripts are in tip-top shape and can shoot without any changes.

“For the next couple of weeks, we’ll be busy trying to complete episodes that were either in production as of Monday or for which we have scripts that we can shoot,” said one studio chief. “There will be impediments, though, from people not wanting to cross the picket lines to people not wanting to honor contracts.”

A studio exec said the focus on how many scripts are available to shoot isn’t as crucial as some have made it out to be — having eight episodes vs. nine in the can, for example, won’t make much of a difference.

“People are pretty focused on trying to get as many shootable scripts ready as possible, but one more or two less won’t make or break our business, the networks or even impact a strike,” he said.

The exec said his studio will decide whether to actually shoot a script sans writers once they see how polished the piece is once pencils go down at 12:01 this morning.

If only minor tweaks are needed, studio execs could potentially make the changes themselves — ultimately, they own the scripts, after all. But scripts in need of major triage simply will not be produced.

“If you felt like an episode was at 85% of what it normally will be, you would probably produce it, but below that, you wouldn’t produce it,” the exec said.

All those rumors of script stockpiling, however, were mostly talk. Given the schedule for writing primetime shows — now is around the time staffs start to fall behind — that would be virtually impossible.

“Most of TV is hand-to-mouth,” one exec said. “You can’t get too far ahead.”

  • Sudsers. Most have a backlog of completed episodes and scripts that should keep viewers in a lather through year’s end.

After that, it’s possible network execs and producers could use existing story outlines to write scripts themselves, as happened in 1988.

  • Quizzers. Most shows don’t have WGA scribes or can get along without them. Exceptions: syndie powerhouse “Jeopardy” and the daytime version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” are WGA shows.

However, as with many quizzers, both shows tape episodes far in advance.

It’s understood producer Sony has enough segs in the can to keep the show in originals through April. And “Millionaire” will tape its final seg of the current season this week, ensuring no repeats this season.

  • Back-nine orders. Only a handful of new fall shows have been given full-season orders, in part because webs wanted to see if a strike took place. Once a walkout begins, shows that would be likely to get back-nine orders may be forced to wait a lot longer.

“We don’t legally have to pick up more episodes until mid-December or later,” one exec said. “You might as well wait.”

  • Development/pilot season. The status of projects is all over the map.

In many cases, the nets picked up spec scripts — which are potentially in decent enough shape to be shot.

NBC, for example, has more than a half-dozen pilots ready to lense, many with big-name helmers attached (Brett Ratner, Richard Shepard).

A few pilots already have taped, including ABC’s Cedric the Entertainer comedy.

Other projects are in early drafts that already have been turned in; the majority, however, probably were not going to be turned in until Thanksgiving.

“Some good scripts are in, but we’ll take a hard look at them,” one exec said. “Whether we’ll feel they’re good enough is another thing. The idea of not being able to rewrite them at all is scary.”

Meanwhile, even if pilot scripts are in, studio and network chiefs said they’re not so sure they want to spend the money to produce a pilot — especially if the actors plan to go on strike in summer.

“Pilot season will definitely be in jeopardy if the strike goes on a while,” said one top exec.

Another suit put the dilemma facing nets this way: “Do you want to make a pilot and July 1 have your actors go on strike, and then be sitting there with a pilot you invested $6 million or $7 million between the network and studio, but can’t utilize it for some period of time?

“That’s why right now I don’t know whether we’ll be taking any of those scripts.”

And if a strike continues, execs said, pilot season will “grind to a halt.”

“Maybe a few pilots will be made, but you’re looking at an entirely different upfront,” an exec said.

If a strike is settled by late spring, the nets could also take a handful of scripts and simply roll the dice by ordering them to series, pilots be damned. (Not an entirely foreign concept — projects like Fox’s Joss Whedon/Eliza Dushku drama already have episodic commitments, and cablers including FX normally produce just a handful of pilots and usually greenlight the majority of those to series anyway.)

“How much worse can we do?” an exec said.

Considering the diminished returns the nets see on a yearly basis, there’s actually an argument to be made that the nets should simply return most of this year’s shows next fall — saving money by not having to promote new scripted fare and instead trying to grow the shows already on the air, including series on the bubble.

“I could set next fall’s schedule now without development at all,” one network head said.

But without a settlement by the upfronts, what would fall 2008 look like?

“My guess is all the networks will be able to announce schedules next fall with primarily new programming, but it will have a lot of reality and news,” one exec said. “Maybe Fox will have some animated shows that will be available to them. But the upfront will be a very different upfront.”

For starters, the nets may forgo the massive Carnegie Hall/Lincoln Center/Radio City Music Hall song-and-dance show in front of thousands of media buyers.

“Maybe instead of a New York hall, they’ll just meet with individual ad agencies — it will be a modified upfront,” an exec said.

  • Network execs. Don’t expect people in the network suites to lose their jobs right away. “We’re not going to lay anybody off until we have to, and that would have to be a very long strike,” said one topper.

Instead, many current and development staffers may find themselves helping out their brethren in the alternative programming divisions — which are expected to kick into overdrive if a strike wears on.

“There’s a bunch of scripted development people here freaking out at the prospect of not being busy,” said one net exec. “They’re begging to help out the reality people.”

Lines between reality and scripted have blurred so much in recent years that the skill sets for the two genres are now similar.

That said, alternative execs will not necessarily welcome input from scripted suits. One wag laughed at the idea of Fox alternative prexy Mike Darnell — known for operating his own kingdom within the net — enlisting Fox’s scripted team.

One studio exec said his alternative team is already dusting off reality ideas that have been percolating for a while.

“I know that we’ve been keeping some things on the shelf to pitch,” he said. “There will be plenty to do for a while.”

  • The TV Critics Assn. press tour. There’s already talk that the semiannual powwow — in which nets hype their new shows — could be scaled back if a strike lasts.

A network insider said TCA prexy Dave Walker will meet with the networks on Monday to discuss strike scenarios. While journos need some notice before making hotel reservations, networks say they can postpone a call on the TCA until at least December.

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