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Writers return to a new TV world

The Baltimore Sun

When Hollywood writers return to work this week, they will find a TV industry on the verge of major change - much of it the result of the four-month strike, and all of it destined to alter the look of prime-time entertainment in the coming months and years.

Network television as American viewers have known it for five decades - the fall season that rolls out new programs, shows that offer one or two dozen new episodes from fall to spring - could be coming to an end.

With voting scheduled today and tomorrow on a tentative accord unanimously endorsed yesterday by union leadership, the writers are expected to be back at their desks by Wednesday, with the studio assembly lines that make prime-time series such as ABC's Grey's Anatomy running by the end of the week. According to that timetable, new episodes of top-rated series should be arriving onscreen within three weeks to a month, analysts and producers say.

But while everyone agrees that the Writers Guild of America scored a significant gain by getting studios and networks to allow them to share in gross profits from online use of their work in the last year of a three-year contract, other long-term changes that took place while they were on the picket line might not bode so well for members.

From reality TV further displacing scripted sitcoms and dramas, to network executives looking to embrace a British model of prime-time production that could end such decades-old practices as the fall season, the industry looks to be moving to a more efficient way of doing business, in part as a result of the strike.

"The writers essentially got a half a loaf with the shared money from new media, and that's a victory when you remember back to November when the strike started and they were getting no loaf," said Douglas Gomery, author of The Hollywood Studio System: A History. "But the studios and networks were forced to find new ways to do business without sitcoms and dramas during the strike, and what they found could change life for writers and viewers."

All of the networks stocked up on reality TV shows in the weeks and months before the start of the strike Nov. 5, and now the cupboards are full of shows like Moment of Truth and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader on Fox. The shows costs less than half as much as a dramatic series to make, and except for a handful of sitcoms and dramas in the Top 20, draw larger audiences.

"I guarantee you those reality shows are going to stay on the schedules, while some of the more marginally-rated sitcoms and dramas that were airing before the strike started won't be coming back. It's a simple matter of cost effectiveness that became obvious the last four months," a network programmer said yesterday on condition of anonymity because of a company policy of not commenting until the strike is settled. "And, I'll tell you something else: The reality stuff will play a larger role than ever next fall."

Another reason that viewers will be faced with more reality TV and less scripted fare next fall, is that the annual Hollywood ritual known as "pilot season" has been severely disrupted by the strike.

The process that began in the 1960s involves Hollywood producers making up to 100 pilot episodes of new series each winter and spring at an annual cost to the studios and networks of about $500 million. Based on the pilots, the networks place orders for the series they want to debut each fall.

If the writers return to work this week, part of the pilot season could be salvaged. But the word out of Hollywood this weekend was that fewer than 30 pilots will be made. With so few new series and so much inventory from established series on hand, why bother with a big fall rollout?

"Rethinking pilot production and TV seasons is long overdue, and there were a lot of larger forces driving the networks to that," Gomery said. "But now they are moving toward it."

Indeed, Jeff Zucker, chief executive officer of NBC Universal, sounded just such a call last month at a national conference of TV executives, saying that the industry could no longer afford business as usual when it came to the pilot season.

"Why not make fewer pilots and have the courage of our convictions and order series straight to air like we do on the reality side," he said. "The odds of success are just as great going straight to series as they are making all those pilots - and we won't do worse."

Last week, Zucker acted on his words - placing a six-episode order for an American version of a hit Australian sitcom about a dysfunctional family, Kath & Kim, without a pilot. The six-episode order follows the economic model used in British TV, where seasons sometimes run only six episodes rather than the 13 or 22 for most American network programs.

Actors prefer the shorter TV seasons in Britain because it allows then to also work in theater and film - which means that viewers might be seeing better performers working in network television series under such a plan. But having only six episodes instead of 22 each year of a beloved series might be considered a steep price to pay by some fans.

After the 1988 strike, network executives decided that their companies had to become more efficient and that all divisions had to become profit centers. Fans of network news saw famed documentary units and political coverage cut to the bone with resources shifted to prime-time newsmagazines.

"The strike isn't even formally over, and already you're asking about legacy," one studio executive said, declining to go on the record until the writers are officially back on the job.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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