Network programmers gathered in darkened screening rooms last week to get their first look at the crop of new shows for the fall. When they make their decisions this week, they'll just have one thing to worry about: Whether strikes will ultimately prevent viewers from seeing what they chose.
Like every year, the network chiefs are picking sitcoms and dramas, but, this year, reality has sunk in. Has it ever. The genre has taken off with viewers, and, what's more, it's the sort of programming networks don't need lots of union writers or actors to produce.
The broadcast networks take over Manhattan starting May 14 to unveil their fall lineups to advertisers with presentations at such hotspots as Radio City Music Hall, Lincoln Center and the U.S.S. Intrepid moored in the Hudson River.
With the threat of strikes, nearly every network went overboard on the reality front. Each one of the networks has at least five projects in the works, including The WB, which stayed out of the genre until hitting success with Pop Stars. The WB now has nine reality projects in active development. Even little Pax has a pair of reality series, including a comedy/reality series with comedian Jeff Foxworthy.
The combination of a down economy and threat of strikes, by both the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild, is making advertisers and media buyers nervous.
"I think the biggest thing is whether or not we are going to see six schedules or 12," says Stacey Lynn Koerner, of media buyer TN Media, referring to the fact that each network is apparently preparing the schedule it wants—and the schedule it may be forced into if there's a work stoppage.
"I think we will see complete schedules for the best-case scenarios for the fall, and I think, depending on the network, we will either see real schedule plans for a strike schedule or we will get the broad ideas of what a strike plan would be."
The WGA contract expired on May 1, but, at deadline, it was said to be close to a new pact with studios. Programmers were optimistic late last week that the fall lineups will be unaffected by labor disputes. SAG has until June 30 to reach a new pact with studios to avert the possibility of a strike.
"We don't think there is going to be a strike," says Jeff Zucker, NBC's new entertainment president. "We will be prepared just in case, but we are very hopeful all of this is going to be settled."
Added Fox's Entertainment President Gail Berman, "I think we'll have an 'A' schedule. We'll be prepared to tell advertisers what we will have in case of a strike, but we think it's going to be A all the way."
The surprise move late last month by UPN to steal Buffy the Vampire Slayer from The WB brought some of the attention back to the programming side of the upfronts. UPN's move was followed by ABC's renewal of Dharma & Greg and a handful of other deals made at the last minute.
The focus across the major broadcast networks this spring is undoubtedly on comedy. The Big Six have 68 comedy pilots in development, with a couple more at Pax. The WB has 17 pilots. NBC is developing 16, ABC and Fox have 11 each, CBS has 10 and UPN two.
"I think this is about twice as much as we have ever done here in terms of comedy. The most we ever did in the past was something like eight," says Susanne Daniels, The WB's co-president of Entertainment.
In drama, there were 46 pilots ordered. CBS led the way with 11, and ABC had ten. NBC, which already has ordered a third Law & Order series for the fall, piloted seven dramas, and The WB has six. ABC, which has enjoyed success with three midseason comedies, can now put more attention to dramatic development for the fall. "Our 8 p.m. drama development is very strong, and it's rare for ABC to have strong early-evening drama development," says Stu Bloomberg, ABC Entertaiment's co-chairman.