The Writers Guild of America may find out very soon that even if its members "won," they also lost. And even viewers who have managed to get through the writers strike with a minimum of entertainment interruptus will likely feel the fallout as well.
Why? Because change is coming. And for the next year, it probably won't be good for writers or viewers.
Even with Writers Guild of America members starting to return to work today the landscape for both this season and next is irrevocably altered. Sources within the industry say there's no rule book on how networks will get back to business - nothing that can be predicted accurately because studios and networks will make decisions independent of each other and strategies for series will vary.
But here's what's likely:
-- Several writers will probably get pink slips. That's because certain series - and not only those that premiered this season - are going to be canceled. The cost of firing back up the machine to crank out shows that are in the middle of the ratings pack - or worse - could be prohibitive to networks. Momentum has been lost. Viewers have forgotten plenty of middling (particularly freshmen) series. The idea of relaunching them seems daunting, not to mention expensive.
-- Some of those slots will be lost to reality programming that's already in the pipeline.
-- There seems to be resistance among most networks to extend the season beyond its traditional end in May. If that doesn't change, look for virtually all shows to have a truncated season - shorter episodes, unfinished story lines.
-- Although the math at each network differs, the numbers most mentioned are "four to six weeks" to get anything on the air, which means late March - but some are saying April. That would significantly cut down the season totals of most series.
-- And already writers are looking at a bleaker picture for next season, with the networks deciding that the development season (which typically begins with scripts being submitted in the fall and then shot as pilots in the winter and spring after a winnowing process) has been damaged during the strike and the only way to survive is to cut back on orders. So instead of having, say, each network develop 20 series - choosing the best of the bunch for next season's schedule - the number could be half that (or even less). Any equation you look at ends with reduced work, lost opportunities.
-- For viewers - who, by the way, barely have any working knowledge of the way the industry runs and so may be alarmed by the fallout - the immediate impact is a drastically reduced season. That may not hurt closed-ended series quite so much - procedurals such as "CSI" and "Law & Order" that tell a story in one hour and then end. But serialized dramas are going to cause a lot of confusion. How about no season of "24"? That scenario is on the table. The action-packed Fox thriller could be shelved until fall at the earliest, or even held until its normal slot - January (of 2009).
-- What's to become of "Lost," which has eight episodes in the can? That arc, according to the show's producers, has a beginning and end. Will ABC try to get four or six more episodes out of the writers - and will those episodes also follow a clean arc or leave viewers hanging until January 2009 as well? That's the kind of gamble networks haven't properly sussed out.
-- In all likelihood, series that were doing well before the strike started in November - such as "Pushing Daisies" on ABC - will be spared the ax. What's not clear is the network thinking for each of these series. Even if, for example, ABC decides to hang onto "Pushing Daisies," that doesn't automatically mean it will ramp up for more episodes this season. Some series will undoubtedly be put on hiatus until next fall - even if they are safe. Others may be allowed to crank out as many episodes as they can before the end of May. But even then, some of those series will have to be auditioning for their lives. If the audience doesn't come back, adios. It may not be fair, but it's life in the strike-shortened 2007-08 season.
-- The best any fan can expect from their favorite series is four to six new episodes. Anything more is gravy. Series able to produce as many as eight episodes from scratch will be considered miracle workers.
-- Some series have completed episodes remaining from their prestrike totals. For example, "Men in Trees" has at least 10. Any series with episodes ready to go has an advantage when it comes to seizing the attention of viewers.
-- Some series have completed or nearly completed scripts ready to be tweaked and then shot. That will speed the process.
A lot of people in the industry believe that instead of writing "passion projects," like the next Great American Novel, while they were on strike, writers were actually writing scripts for the shows that employ them. Yes, that would have broken the rules. But the WGA is likely to look the other way. Everyone is talking about a two-week period of writing scripts before filming can start at the earliest. One network executive joked that those two weeks will be the most productive in the history of television.
-- Conventional wisdom says that comedies will ratchet up production faster than dramas (especially large-scale dramas like "Lost" which feature big ensemble casts and grand locations), but there are fewer comedies than dramas on each network's schedule. As for those 30 episodes of "The Office" promised for this season? Forget about it.
-- Clouding any decisions on current programming is the fact that networks prepared for the strike by green-lighting a bunch of reality series, but they also started the process of importing series from other countries (Canada, England) completely intact. That means that as we head into this last part of the season, there's less need to restart existing series (again - particularly struggling freshmen series) and the networks might start swinging the ax.
-- Of course, strategies are in flux. A network like Fox - which benefited from major sports events such as the Super Bowl - held back original episodes later than most, so it will have more to offer. Not only that, but if Fox or another network feels it's doing well enough in the ratings as we head into the home stretch, it may be content to fill out its roster with series that didn't quite make the cut in the fall ("New Amsterdam," anyone?) and see what happens. Playing the scrubs, so to speak. That's easier to do when you've got "American Idol" killing everything in its path.
-- Every other strategy is a gamble, some executives concede. There's no real game plan. But one programmer suggested that what will be most important for this season and next is loyalty and stardom. The networks may have to gamble that if you love a show, you'll come back to it whenever it airs (even if that's in the first quarter of 2009). And you'll return even if the season ends in a confusing spot (a strike-anointed cliff-hanger). And stardom (A-list actors and proven executive producers) will dominate next season's offerings because of the reduction in pilots to choose from. Go with what you know will be the operating bible.
-- Although most cable channels will be able to delay the start of their strike-affected series - cable shows have never truly had a predictable schedule (see: "The Sopranos") - they are not immune from the business realities of the strike. For example, FX - the prestige basic cable channel - had fully intended to finish the "back six" episodes of "Dirt" and "The Riches," which each managed to turn out seven episodes before shutting down because of the strike. But FX announced last week that those seven episodes would conclude the respective seasons of those shows. In the case of "Dirt," which will be adopting more of a "ripped from the headlines" approach and thus be closed-ended, the impact might not be great. But for "The Riches" - which is by far the better series - its serialized nature will leave the story hanging at seven episodes. Executives at FX will have to decide, based on the artistic merit and also the ratings of those strike-shortened episodes, whether each series deserves to be renewed.
It's not how you'd draw it up. But it's the new world order for Hollywood.
So, yeah. That perspective definitely makes me fear for Friday Night Lights and Supernatural too.
Although I am happy to *finally* see New Amsterdam on...maybe. I'm really irritated that the Fox commercials all say "Soon." Dudes, I was waiting for this show since the fall. Come on already!