A tentative agreement reached over the weekend between striking writers and major Hollywood studios could bring new episodes of hit TV shows such as Grey's Anatomy and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation back to prime time in a matter of weeks.
Other sitcoms and dramas might never return, done in by the success of reality TV replacements.
The bitterly fought Hollywood writers strike that shut down late-night TV and threatened to derail the Oscars could officially end today with an announcement from the Writers Guild of America that its more than 10,000 members have accepted a new, three-year contract.
Membership meetings were held over the weekend in New York and Los Angeles amid high hopes that TV and film writers would embrace the deal and return to work by tomorrow, ending the longest labor dispute in Hollywood since 1988.
At the heart of the deal is a compromise on new media revenues that establishes a precedent in the final year of the contract for profit sharing on shows distributed on the Web.
"While this agreement is neither perfect nor perhaps all that we deserve for the countless hours of hard work and sacrifice, our strike has been a success," guild presidents Patric M. Verrone and Michael Winship wrote to members yesterday urging them to accept.
University of Maryland economist Douglas Gomery predicted that the studio assembly lines that produce prime-time sitcoms and dramas could be fully operational within a week. But that doesn't necessarily mean that fans will soon be seeing their favorite shows onscreen, he warned.
"If you're a fan of a hit series like Grey's Anatomy or the CSI programs, you will see new episodes of those shows as fast as the studios can make them - probably within three weeks to a month," says Gomery, author of The Hollywood Studio System: A History. "But that is not the case for all shows. Some that were on in November will not be back until the fall - and some will never be back. It will vary genre by genre, show by show."
Rafael Alvarez, a producer on the NBC crime drama Life, says an episode of an hourlong series such as his can be made in three weeks.
"But that's really pushing it and allowing only three or four days for writing a script from scratch," says Alvarez, a former reporter for The Sun.
While Alvarez declined to comment on the tentative agreement, which was posted on the union's Web site yesterday, he said he was returning to Los Angeles today with hopes of being back at his desk tomorrow morning.
In addition to ABC's Grey's Anatomy and CBS' several CSI series, other weekly dramas sure to return with as many episodes as the producers can deliver during the next three months are ABC's Desperate Housewives and Fox's House.
TV sitcoms, which are the easiest to produce, could have stars back in front of the cameras on Hollywood soundstages by the end of next week, which would mean new episodes on-air by the first week of March, according to several Hollywood producers.
Comedies that are expected to quickly go back into production include NBC's The Office and My Name Is Earl, as well as CBS' Two and a Half Men - all of which are ratings winners. Viewers could see as many as 10 new episodes of each by the official end of the TV season on May 21.
Viewers will see a near-instant effect at late-night programs such as Jay Leno's Tonight Show and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, which went back on the air Jan. 3 without writers. The two NBC productions will be using writings for their Monday night programs if the strike is settled today.
The picture is less clear for big-budget, serialized, action-adventure series such as NBC's Heroes and Fox's 24. There is not enough time before the end of May to play out full story arcs, and the networks have come to understand that even hit shows in this genre lose audience interest when they go on hiatus.
Thus, neither is expected to return until next fall - although the producers of 24 have a finished 12-episode arc that they could get on-air in two weeks.
According to one network executive who spoke on condition of anonymity, however, Fox is leaning toward holding back on 24, because the network has enjoyed such success in recent weeks with new reality series such as Moment of Truth.
ABC, meanwhile, has six more episodes of Lost yet to air. While the network could theoretically produce another eight episodes by the end of the May, it will be more cost-effective to hold off until next fall rather than instantly ramping up to full production.
Indeed, the big story of this strike might prove to be that the networks and studios were forced to find a more efficient economic model for doing business the past three months, and they will never go back to the way things were before the walkout that started Nov. 5., analysts say.
Marginal weekly dramatic series that in the past might have run a full season will not return this year. The economics of re-assembling a production team and then an ad campaign to announce the re-launch no longer make sense, now that the networks have seen they can hold audiences with reality series that cost less than half as much to make.
More dramatic yet is the evaluation that network and studio heads have done in recent months, re-examining production practices in place in Hollywood since the early 1960s.
Each year during the winter and spring, up to 100 pilot episodes of new series are made with an eye to the shows' winning spots on the networks' fall lineups. The networks annually spend up to $500 million a year on the pilots.
But because of the strike, no tryout episodes have been made, and the networks are not likely at this late date to order more than a handful - with some executives wondering whether the whole practice might not be abandoned.
Furthermore, the disruption in the cycle of making pilots during the strike has led network executives to reconsider the expensive annual ritual of new fall lineups.
"Maybe the new fall lineups are not needed either, and there is a much more cost-effective way to do it - that's what they're thinking about in the back of their minds," Gomery says. "But more than anything else, what they're really thinking about is how fast they can get their hits back on the air."
What to expect
Hit series expected to return with new epsiodes within a month: Grey's Anatomy (ABC), Desperate Housewives (ABC), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS), CSI: Miami (CBS), CSI: New York (CBS), Two and a Half Men (CBS), The Office (NBC), My Name Is Earl (NBC).
Series not expected to return until next fall because of complex story arcs: Heroes (NBC) and 24 (Fox).