Writers’ strike: Reality sets in

A dark latenight ahead?

While the networks have been repeating the mantra that “screens will not go black,” it won’t take long for TV viewers to see the impact of a Writers Guild of America strike.

The canaries in TV’s creative coal mine are latenight hosts such as David Letterman and Jay Leno, whose monologues and sketches are dependent on union writers. If history is any guide, both shows will almost instantly go dark, as would “Saturday Night Live.” Comedy Central’s latenight stalwarts “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” would also likely switch to repeats in the immediate aftermath of a strike.

“Boom — our show just shuts down,” said “SNL” vet Amy Poehler. “It’s just done. There is no backlog of scripts.” (For more on latenight and the strike, click here.)

Primetime comedy and drama series will feel the pinch immediately, though the on-air effect will be delayed at least a few weeks for most shows as they air completed segs. Cruelest blows will hit the frosh crop of shows that are just starting to get a toehold with viewers, including ABC’s “Private Practice,” “Pushing Daisies” and “Samantha Who” and CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory.”

The repercussions of scribes going out will surely be felt at Hollywood’s major talent agencies. It’s widely expected that a prolonged strike would result in serious layoffs; some agencies have already sketched out strike contingency plans involving salary deferments and other cost-cutting moves.

In general, most nets will have four or five filmed episodes of most of their shows on hand as of Thursday. In addition, most shows have anywhere from one to five scripts that have been written but not yet shot.

Just when repeats will begin popping up “depends on whether we can shoot these other episodes,” one insider said. Even if actors agree to film those episodes, scribes won’t be available to do rewrites or make changes based on network notes.

Most likely, original episodes will start disappearing by early December or January. And it’s no mystery what will fill those timeslots.

“The most likely outcome is more news and more reality,” said NBC U entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman.

Real question mark, then, is just how nets will sked all the reality and news programs they’ve been bulking up on during the past year.

“Do we have a schedule, per se? No,” said one webhead. “Do we have a lot of options? Yes.”

Of all the webs, Fox is sitting pretty with “American Idol” slated to return for the second half of the season, ensuring at least one net will have the lights fully turned on in the event of a work stoppage. ABC, meanwhile, can crank up “Dancing With the Stars”–and maybe even revive “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Suits said they can’t make final calls on how to spread out their programming resources until a strike is actually called. What’s more, scenarios will change depending on whether the work stoppage looks to be a short-lived event or a months-long ordeal.

With sweeps far less important than they used to be, some networks could air a few repeats of shows in November to keep a reservoir of originals until late January or February.

Some shows are better off than others.

CW laffer “Everybody Hates Chris,” for example, has actually wrapped production on a full 22-episode season. Other CW Monday comedies are also far ahead in production, which means the net could keep originals on the air through February.

Most nets have multiple schedules at the ready: one in case of a two-month strike, another in the event of a four-month strike and so on.

“Those decisions are ready to go,” one webhead said. “It’s so much more manageable this time around. In 1988, everything was scripted programming. But now there’s so much alternative programming, at least we have a pad.”

And in many cases, writers were looking to add a bit of a cliffhanger, tie up some loose ends or at least make a big splash in that seg, in case it turns into a de facto season ender.

On “Pushing Daisies,” for example, exec producer Bryan Fuller said he was racing to finish the show’s ninth episode, which winds down a major character arc that threads through episodes seven and eight as well. “There’s such a scramble to get as much work as possible done,” Fuller said.

They’re breathing a little easier on “Prison Break,” the Fox drama that traditionally splits its seasons in half, with a midyear cliffhanger that helps bridge the gap between January (when the show takes a break) and April, when it returns.

In case there is a strike, that midyear cliffhanger could easily double as a season finale if need be, said exec producer Matt Olmstead.

“We have our episodes through 13 written,” Olmstead said. “That’s our traditional break, anyway. So at least we won’t be cutting out mid-storyline if a strike happens.”

Then there’s “Lost.” Fans have been waiting patiently for the ABC show’s February launch and the promise of 16 uninterrupted episodes. That pledge, of course, will be partly kept if only eight episodes are ready to go this year. But rather than wait to pair them with the other eight, ABC will still air what it has, as scheduled.

“It’s better to come on with some season than no season,” one insider said. “If there’s a strike, we’ll need scripted programming.”

Fox will face a similar decision with “24,” which usually is far ahead of schedule but this year is playing catch-up due to creative problems early in the season.

Some shows are so far ahead of production, they would seemingly be less impacted immediately. Such is the case with animated series — a genre not on the air during the 1988 strike — which, due to the production process, is written as much as a year ahead. But “The Simpsons” exec producer Al Jean said his show may still be hampered by a strike.

“The Simpsons” has recorded 21 of 22 episodes for this year’s batch, but “recorded doesn’t mean they’re done,” he said. “They still need rewriting.”

While the last strike helped birth unscripted skeins such as “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted,” 20 years later the reality genre has fully matured. Webheads have been stockpiling reality shows like crazy and will be ready to go with literally dozens of concepts.

A strike will likely help the nets put several bubble shows out of their misery. ABC’s “Cavemen,” Fox’s “K-Ville” and the CW’s “Life Is Wild,” among other frosh, may be among the first casualties, as nets and studios decide to simply shut shows down for good.

The threat of a strike has also kept some nets from making full-season orders on certain shows. The philosophy varies from net to net — some have ordered a bunch of back nines, figuring they can always force mejeure their way out of the order should a strike shut things down, while others are waiting, not wanting to deal with the question of who still needs to be paid if a show is picked up for a full year but doesn’t produce a full season’s worth of segs.

ABC, for example, picked up the back nine of “Samantha Who?” on Tuesday. NBC, on the other hand, is waiting before officially ordering more segs of successful shows like “Chuck.”

Of course, in some cases, the strike talk has helped underperforming skeins stay on the air longer. Insiders believe “Cavemen” would have otherwise been yanked weeks ago, but no one’s eager to dump original scripted fare right now (with a few exceptions), since there may be a need for it later on.

The strike talk — and the nets’ need for original fare — has also particularly motivated lower-performing (or untested) shows to churn out as many scripts as possible (under the idea that the nets will more likely stick with a scripted show during a strike, even if it’s stumbling in the ratings). ABC’s “October Road,” for example, already has 13 scripts in the can.

With a strike looking to be pretty much a fait accompli at this point, network execs are resigned to the fact that things are about to get hairy — and no one knows how it’ll shake out.

“We are as prepared as anyone, but that’s really only good for so much,” one broadcast topper said.

From a financial standpoint, network execs are at least in a better position than their studio counterparts. The nets may see their ratings and revenue go south as they replace scripted fare with repeats and reality shows, but their costs will decline, too. Sliding in a reality show that costs $900,000 per episode in place of a $3 million-per-seg drama will help soothe the sting of a strike.

That said, “We really don’t want this to happen because of the macroeconomic issues facing our community,” NBC U’s Silverman said. “It’s disturbing and upsetting that it seems to be becoming a foregone conclusion.”