Networks schedule around possible stoppage
The Big Four nets are plotting their midseason sked changes as primetime heads into the zone of holiday specials and repeats. And for the second year in a row, the winter makeovers also involve contingency planning for the threat of a strike cutting off the scripted programming pipeline once again.The Screen Actors Guild grabbed the biz’s attention last week by announcing its intent to seek a strike authorization vote from members after the attempt at mediation between the guild and the majors was called off after two days. Numerous top net execs admit to tuning out of SAG’s long-running contract drama, what with production on new and returning series continuing to hum along even after the guild’s last contract expired June 30. Now, just in time for the holidays, the biz has a new strike threat to fret about, even as it absorbs the repercussions of the Writers Guild of America’s 100-day walkout. But the leverage dynamic for SAG, should the guild go out on strike, could be very different than the immediate wallop inflected on TV by the WGA’s Nov. 5-Feb. 12 work stoppage. For starters, the timing is less than ideal. By the time SAG could walk, a number of shows, particularly half-hours, would be about a month or so away from wrapping up lensing (if not post-production) for the season. Sure, the nets would miss any lost segs, but it’s not the same level of disruption caused when the scribes bolted after most shows only had a half-dozen or so episodes fully completed. Also, a number of midseason frosh series in the wings have all but completed their initial episode orders, or will have by the time a strike could commence. Although SAG has not spelled out its timetable for the strike vote, the referendum process takes about 2½ weeks, the prevailing wisdom being that the soonest thesps could be on picket lines would be around mid-January. In that scenario, hourlong series would bear the brunt as filming on dramas tends to run through late March/early April. As was the case this year, Fox is the best positioned of the Big Four to withstand the pain of a strike. How come? Two words: “American Idol,” which returns to its usual Tuesday-Wednesday berths on Jan. 13-14. Even if it loses a little bit of its ratings thunder, the SAG-proof “Idol” is virtually assured of towering over the competish. Beyond its lethal unscripted weapon, Fox also has the long-awaited seventh season of “24″ largely in the can and ready to roll Jan. 11. Fox’s “House,” “Bones” and frosh star “Fringe” are already far along in completing their seasons because they got off to an early start in September. On the other hand, a strike would take its toll on the midseason newcomer that network brass are high on, the Tim Roth starrer “Lie to Me,” which is getting the post-”Idol” slot on Wednesday come January. ABC might be in for the roughest time among the Big Four if the actors walk. The Alphabet has the most scripted shows on its midseason bench of any network, and they are in various early stages of production after being greenlighted in late summer/early fall. The net is banking on the Jan. 21 return of “Lost” to shore up its Wednesday night fortunes, but the show at present is only about halfway done shooting its 17-episode, fifth-season order. A disruption of “Lost” would be a cruel blow to ABC, which has still been suffering the consequences of the writers’ walkout. Net had some momentum last fall with a clutch of new dramas — including “Pushing Daisies,” “Private Practice” and “Dirty Sexy Money” — but the shows had a hard time re-starting this fall after nine months off the air. NBC’s big hope for the new year, the moody Ian McShane drama “Kings,” is skedded to wrap principal photog by February. Peacock also has episodes of returning dramas “Friday Night Lights” and “Medium” in the bank, as well as limited-run contest skein “Superstars of Dance” and the new unscripted entry “Momma’s Boys.” CBS has only a few midseason skeins on deck, the spooky frosh drama “Harper’s Island,” returning comedy “Rules of Engagement” and the actioner “Flashpoint,” a Canadian co-production that played well for the Eye in its limited run during the summer. CBS also has 2½ weeks of March Madness college hoops from mid-March through early April, which will help the net conserve fresh episodes of its scripted fare, if need be.