The looming threat of a writers strike is casting a dark cloud over the television industry, though it is actually keeping a group of struggling shows on the air.
The tumultuous negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers have the networks concerned enough that they are hesitant to cancel anything right now.
The reasoning is simple: If the writers walk soon after their current deal expires on October 31, the networks want to have as much scripted inventory on hand as possible.
“If I cancel a show now and put something in its place, I have eight unaired episodes of that show,” explains Fox head of program planning and research Preston Beckman. “We would rather stick with what we have and have [a potential replacement show] to hold on to for a strike. Otherwise, if there is a strike, I net out with eight fewer original hours.”
Some say the threat of a work stoppage is likely helping to keep struggling shows like CBS' Cane, Fox's K-Ville and ABC's Big Shots on the air.
Judging by statements they released after each negotiating session last week, both sides are turning up the heat on the rhetoric but aren't making much progress. And the industry is becoming increasingly pessimistic that there will be a work stoppage, which would come at an already-tumultuous time for network television.
“All recent signs are pointing towards there being a strike, given the level of vitriol that seems to coming out of both sides, frankly, at the bargaining table,” says a high-ranking network executive involved in the talks.
The WGA and AMPTP are set to resume talks Tuesday. Thursday is the deadline for WGA members to vote on whether to authorize the WGA to strike after the October 31 deadline.
If the WGA were to strike, a popular line of thinking used to be that it would wait until next summer, when the contracts for the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America expire on June 30.
But conventional wisdom around Hollywood seems to be shifting toward a possible work stoppage next month. And the networks don't have the luxury of waiting around to find out.
“We are just trying to get as much written material in the door as we can before a strike so we can get as many original episodes on the air while there's a strike going on,” says NBC Universal co-chairman Marc Graboff.
The networks are scouting replacement programs. “I spend time every day going through, if they strike, what it means,” Fox's Beckman says. “We have to hope for the best, but assume the worst.”
For full coverage of the strike, click here.