A Heavy Dose of Reality

LOS ANGELES The Hollywood writers strike is on. The writers’ labor contract expired Oct. 31, as producers continued to lock horns with writers over several key issues, including increased residuals for DVD sales and compensation for Internet streaming of content.

As it stands, producers don’t pay writers for streamed content offered gratis on, say, network Web sites. For fee-based content downloaded from iTunes, for example, writers are paid based on a home-video-sales formula agreed upon more than a decade ago.

Here’s the rub: Writers hate the home-video formula, which they argue was concocted long before DVD sales became a multimillion-dollar business for producers. And they don’t want to find themselves in a similar position with new media as it evolves over the next decade.

With neither side showing signs of retreat, the strike could further impact what’s already shaped up to be a lackluster TV season. As Mediaweek reported in its Oct. 9 issue, broadcasters are planning to fill vacant slots on their schedules with news, sports and specials programming, not to mention a measurable influx of nonscripted series. In fact, much already has been made of the fact that the still-growing nonscripted sector offers broadcasters more options than ever before in terms of producing strike-proof programming.

Broadcasters have been ordering up nonscripted series over the past year, and if writers walk, the networks could rush any of these shows into production.

In addition to another cycle of Dancing With the Stars, ABC is developing a game show, Duel, based on a French game-show format that has contestants bluff their way through a series of trivia questions. Also on ABC’s docket: Wanna Bet?, based on a German formula that has contestants betting whether they can perform stunts. CBS is working on an updated version of Password as well as Do You Trust Me?, in which strangers team up in a bid for cash, and the Mark Burnett-produced contest Jingles.

Even before the writers’ strike posed a threat to broadcasters, the CW was planning a reality-heavy spring with the addition of two new nonscripteds, Farmer Wants a Wife and Crowned: The Mother of All Pageants, as well as new cycles of America’s Next Top Model and Pussycat Dolls Present.

Over at Fox, there’s a new season of American Idol—which may be all that network needs. Just in case, there’s the new quiz show Nothing but the Truth, Donald Trump’s charm school contest Lady or a Tramp and Smile! You’re Under Arrest, a comic take on Cops.

NBC, meanwhile, has the quiz show Amnesia, bluffing game The Interrogator and a remake of American Gladiators.

Of course, even the most strike-proof of nonscripteds can’t guarantee eyeballs. And in the event of a prolonged strike, broadcasters may find themselves in the position of offering make goods if advertisers aren’t satisfied with the ratings or the quality of the new programs. “The networks will have to scramble to find comparable inventory,” said Shari Anne Brill, svp, director of programming at Carat USA. “Advertisers need to achieve a certain [gross-rating-point] weight, but getting that weight isn’t enough if it’s translated into low-rent reality product.”

But even worst-case scenarios have their flip side. And some advertisers said a hit or two could emerge from a wave of new series flooding prime time. “With weakened competition, something new could resonate with viewers,” said Brad Adgate, svp, director of research at Horizon Media. “It’s not out of the realm of possibilities.”