NEW YORK As writers and producers resumed negotiations, hopes were high those talks would end the three-month-old Writers Guild of America strike currently crippling the fall TV season. But next season already is affected, as the work stoppage has halted production both of current programs and those in development.
As a result, this spring's upfront selling season is unclear.
If the strike were to end by mid-February, broadcasters could go to market with original episodes of their returning scripted series, as well as non-scripted shows. But production on new scripted series would be forced to proceed in what several executives have referred to as a compressed window. Come spring, the networks might not have footage of those series to show advertisers. Come fall, some might not be ready to air.
What follows is a report on how the upfront sales season is taking shape. —A.J. Frutkin
Most executives acknowledged that if the writers' strike continues, broadcasters will go to market with repeats of scripted series and original episodes of non-scripted shows. If the strike ends, however, scheduling strategies will become much more complicated.
Several advertisers said more of the current season's freshman crop of shows could return next fall than might have been expected. "Some shows are going to be given the benefit of the doubt because of the dearth of development," said Brad Adgate, svp, director of research at Horizon Media.
With the strong launch of NBC's American Gladiators and Fox's Moment of Truth —not to mention a solid return for American Idol—most broadcasters now believe the time is right for more reality.
"The networks can't go back to a model that isn't economically feasible for them," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, evp, entertainment director at Starcom USA. "And because the audience has shown a willingness to watch the reality that the networks are putting on the air today, I think we'll continue to see more of this type of programming."
But the biggest questions concern new scripted programming, and the answers could have consequences that extend far beyond the fall. In advance of a compressed pilot season, ABC, CBS, The CW and Fox all have released a significant number of pilot scripts. Projects that were fast-tracked before the strike, including CBS' Jerry Bruckheimer-produced sci-fi drama Eleventh Hour, could hit the ground running once the strike is over.
Meanwhile, NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker has complained that many pilots—which can cost anywhere from $3 million to $7 million—never even air. To counter that waste, the network's Knight Rider remake is scheduled to air Feb. 17 as a two-hour movie. If successful, the movie could be used as a backdoor pilot.
Whichever projects move forward, several TV execs said it was virtually guaranteed that many new and returning series would not be ready to air by the fall. "Any number of returning shows—indeed, the launch strategy for new programs as well—could be affected, whereby we would be launching later than we have in the past," said Mike Shaw, ABC's president of sales and marketing. —AJF
Media agencies have rolled with the punches over the course of the strike, accepting make goods from broadcasters to ensure their clients get the gross ratings points they bought in last year's upfront. But next season will be a different story, as buyers demand that the networks spell out their scheduling plans or risk seeing those dollars reallocated.
NBC appears most vulnerable. "NBC has said it plans to scrap its pilot development going forward. That is a risky strategy, particularly coming from the fourth-place network," said an agency exec.
While neither side of the negotiating table is ready to scrap the upfront process, agency execs indicate they're flexible about when the negotiations are held.
Said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer at media agency conglomerate GroupM: "It doesn't matter when the upfront is held as long as we can make multi-quarter buys in advance for our clients."
One media buyer said the upfronts may provide more of a benefit than the nets realize. "A good upfront presentation can get the networks a lot of positive publicity for their schedules, and positive buzz can generate more ad dollars," the buyer said. "Scrapping them may not be such a good idea in the long term, even if they can save on some short-term costs." —John Consoli
Although it's anyone's guess how long the writers' strike will last, the absence of scripted series makes cable nets like Discovery, Bravo and HGTV even more attractive for clients. Although media buyers said no talks had yet begun with cable, indications suggest that some preliminary chat could be exchanged as early as next week.
"The market has been accelerated by as much as four weeks," said Jon Steinlauf, Scripps Networks' svp, ad sales. "Our sellout today looks like the sellout we had at the end of last February."
Scripps will get a jump on its road show, meeting with clients and buyers in a circuit that will culminate on April 8, when it holds its formal New York upfront presentation. Bravo, which will go to market with more hours of original content than ever before, also plans to enter the market soon, said vp, ad sales Susan Malfa. "We'll probably be ready to rock and roll in the beginning of March," she said.
Also looking to jump into the fray: A&E Networks, which posted 20 percent ratings growth in prime time at its flagship net and which has leveraged new non-scripted content to generate buzz at the History Channel. "We're starting to lay some pipe," said Mel Berning, AETN evp, ad sales. "Everyone expects the strike will be settled and there will be fresh product on the broadcast side. But if that proves not to be the case, naturally the buyers' focus will go to cable."