News may fill network schedules

Strike could amp up production of shows

A writers strike could mean boom time for the network’s news divisions as they ratchet up production to fill holes in primetime.

While no directive has been given from above, ABC News’ longform unit is stockpiling series under the “Primetime Live” banner as potential fill-in programming and is preparing as if the newsmagazine could return to the schedule.

“We have a lot of series in production,” said “20/20” and “Primetime Live” exec producer David Sloan. “In the event of a strike, we would fast-track them.”

A prolonged writers strike could take primetime back to the ’90s, when “Dateline NBC” ran five nights a week and the newsmagazine was king.

Reality programming replaced the newsmag as cheap ratings fodder starting with CBS’ “Survivor,” and the networks have spent most of this decade cutting back their longform units, which makes coping with a writers strike more difficult than in the past.

“There are many less newsmagazines on the air with many less people working for them, so it will be that much harder to crank out stories with little time to prepare,” said former NBC News prexy and “Dateline” exec producer Neal Shapiro, now president of New York PBS station WNET.

This fall, ABC left “Primetime Live” off the schedule entirely; NBC is airing one episode a week of “Dateline” at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays. CBS cancelled “60 Minutes II” and airs one hour of “48 Hours Mystery” at 10 p.m. on Saturday nights.

Sloan said that while “Primetime” could return for multiple hours a week, he would have to bring in freelancers to get it done.

CBS News could be further hampered by a scheduled strike vote on Nov. 15 for its guild-repped newswriters who have been working without a contract since 2005.

The upside for the networks is they own all the content produced by their news divisions and could dig deep into the archives and freshen hours that have already appeared. NBC’s longform unit, Peacock Prods., produces two hours a night for MSNBC, some of which could air on the network.

A prolonged walkout would start hitting network primetime schedules in early 2008, and some network veterans predict “Dateline NBC,” “48 Hours,” “20/20,” and “Primetime Live” could make a mass return to weekday prime schedules.

ABC News is developing five separate series under the “Primetime” banner including six episodes of “What Would You Do?” five episodes of “Primetime Crime” and five episodes of “Family Secrets,” as well as new episodes of “Primetime Medical Mysteries” and “Primetime the Outsiders.”

The networks have enough programming stockpiled to prevent major pain before next year. But in a prolonged walkout, some observers predict networks might air some primary presidential debates in primetime. CBS News’ Katie Couric is moderating a debate in Los Angeles on Dec. 10.

The last time there was a major contract showdown between the networks and the writers was in the ’90s, during the heyday of newsmagazines, which gave the networks more leverage in the talks.

This time, even champions of the form acknowledge that airing too many newsmags in primetime would be disastrous for the network business.

“There are 500 channels,” noted one former network news exec. “The moment you tell the audience to go away, they have many other places to go.”

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