Networks stock staples
Possible strike giving added boost to reality genre; nets try to expand series orders
By Joe Schlosser -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/22/2000 8:00:00 PM
The broadcast networks are bulking up for what could be a long 2001-02 season. With only six months until a possible work stoppage by actors and writers, executives at the major networks are solidifying backup plans for next fall.
Some are pushing up their development season, others are already ordering extra movies/reality series, and all are asking producers of current series to come up with extra episodes, just in case.
"We think we have a pretty comprehensive plan in place," says new Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman. "And it goes from additional episodes to reality shows to original movies for television to midseason shows' being pushed back until the fall. No one is looking forward to a strike, but we believe that we would be ready if a strike were to come."
The current Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) strike against national advertisers is seen as a prelude by many top TV executives. That strike is reaching its sixth month and is based on the same issue-residuals-that could cause a blackout next summer at the networks and film studios. Some 10,000-plus members of Writers Guild of America (WGA) are apparently ready to walk off the job May 1; another 140,000 SAG and AFTRA members could do the same at the end of June if new, long-term pacts with the studios can't be hammered out.
"I know that a lot of people are reading into the ad strike and how that may play out next year," says SAG spokesman Greg Krizman. "I wouldn't necessarily subscribe to the theory that we are prolonging this strike to try and send a message. Our preference is obviously that our members be working rather than walking a picket line."
Krizman says a number of SAG committees are set to start meeting Oct. 25 and 30 to develop proposals. Regardless, the networks are preparing for the worst.
At The WB, which has no sports or news division or reality programming, there is no time to waste.
"We are looking at development a lot earlier than normal," says Jordan Levin, The WB's executive vice president of programming. "We are probably going to do our pickups four to six weeks earlier than we have in the past."
Levin says he and fellow WB executives are currently considering a number of reality projects that could be turned into series. It's not exactly the network's cup of tea, he says, but the programs would be "more entertainment-based, more comedy and lighter" than usual network reality fare.
The WB is looking at how many scripts on returning shows can be written ahead of time and how many additional episodes can be produced before the strike deadlines. "Some [producers] are willing to do more, some aren't," says Levin. "It's a question of how you can do it without affecting the quality of the shows, and quality is important to us."
Sources say NBC executives have asked producers on all of their top shows to try to crank out additional episodes when they finish with current-season production. Law & Order and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit producer Dick Wolf is said to be willing to add to the 22 episodes scheduled for this year.
"We're in a very different situation from most suppliers because we have multiple-year pickups on two shows. The writing staff does not go on three-month hiatuses anymore," Wolf explains. "So we are just writing at our normally aggressive pace." He says both Law & Order and SVU could be six to 10 episodes ahead by next fall.
NBC Studios' comedy Will & Grace is expected to produce a handful in advance. But sources say producer John Wells ( ER, Third Watch, The West Wing), a leader at the WGA, is not budging. NBC has entered the reality business, with Destination Mir, Chains of Love and game show On the Cover in development.
CBS executives are not talking about their plans, but sources say the network has OK'd production on "much more" than the regular number of original movies in development. CBS is also said to be mulling reality and game projects that could be made into weekly series. The network has gone forward with Race Around the World and is looking to do another installment of Big Brother and probably a third Survivor.
ABC may be in a better position than the other networks, considering Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? owns a good chunk of its lineup. And ABC is starting production on several midseason comedies ( The Joan Cusack Show, Damon Wayans' My Wife and Kids and Denis Leary's The Job ) that could be pushed back until next fall. Plus the network has a handful of reality series in the pipeline, including The Mole and The Runner.
At FOX, Berman "anticipates that additional shows will be provided by many program producers." It's unclear whether David E. Kelley ( Boston Public, Ally McBeal ) or Chris Carter ( The X-Files, The Lone Gunmen ) will put in the extra effort. FOX is stocked on the reality front, with nearly 100 hours of reality programming in the can and more episodes of series Cops, Police Videos and Guinness Book of World Records on order.
At UPN, where executives are still hoping to make it to the fall themselves, programmers have ordered a slew of reality projects that could become "backdoor" pilots. Get Away, Road Rage and Temptation Manor are all possible backup series for next fall, sources say.
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