Television Feeling Immediate Effects Of Writers’ Strike

Late-night talk shows go dark; onslaught of reality TV, prime time sports expected if strike drags on.

Reiterating the hard-line, no-work stance of the Writers Guild of America, movie and television writer John August wrote on his personal blog Friday that “pencils down means pencils down.”

But for millions of television viewers across the country, the credo may very well soon wind up being “pencils up” — for crossword puzzles, sudoku or even letters to Mom. Twenty-four hours after writers first went on strike , some of television’s most popular shows have already been affected, and with many more set to feel the pinch in the coming months, audiences can soon expect a huge disruption in their television-viewing habits, barring a swift resolution to the conflict.

The first such programs to be affected were late-night comedy shows like “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” which all went “dark” beginning Monday night (meaning they went into immediate reruns). Generally filmed the day of their airing, these shows rely heavily on meticulously scripted comedy bits that range from an opening monologue to a closing “Moment of Zen.” Meanwhile, shows that focus more on interview segments, like “The View” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” have continued to run uninterrupted.

But with all due respect to Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg, what happens to them is far less interesting to many viewers than what happens to their favorite fictional characters. What if, as assumed, the strike continues for several months? Will Jack Bauer actually get to save the day? Will Dr. Gregory House get to diagnose a full season’s worth of random diseases? Will the ladies of Wisteria Lane become even more desperate?

We may never find out.

First, the good news for fans of scripted TV: Because of the already long lead for most sitcoms and television dramas — and particularly because of planned stockpiling in the months leading up to the strike — many shows have a number of episodes already in the can or, at the very least, already scripted.

“Desperate Housewives,” for instance, has a bank of nine episodes, “Grey’s Anatomy” has 13 and “Lost” and “24″ both have eight. “Heroes” has two volumes of episodes that could be split into two separate seasons, co-executive producer/writer Jeph Loeb revealed to MTV News. (Check out a full list at the Los Angeles Times Web site.)

Now the bad news: Even with a considerable number of shows ready to go, a bank of around 10 episodes will only take a program into late December or, at best, early January or February (depending on each individual show’s airing schedule). After that?

“What would most likely happen is, in the next few months, you would start to see the effect of shows having to go into reruns,” “Lost” writer Adam Horowitz told MTV News. “Either into reruns or off the air until a strike is resolved. That would extend to every scripted show on the air. Every hourlong drama [and] sitcom would be in the same situation.”

Complicating matters even further for several shows like “30 Rock” and “The Shield” is the fact that their “show runner” is also the program’s head writer. Simply put, a show runner is the person most responsible for running a show, the person primarily in charge of a show’s creative direction. Aside from writing, show runners also produce, scout and edit. Not anymore.

In a widely circulated e-mail published Monday on Deadline Hollywood Daily, “The Shield” show runner and WGA negotiating committee member Shawn Ryan wrote that, as part of the strike, he would discontinue his other duties as well.

“I obviously will not write on my shows,” he wrote. “But I also will not edit, I will not cast, I will not look at location photos, I will not get on the phone with the network and studio, I will not prep directors, I will not review mixes. These are all acts that are about the writing of the show or protecting the writing of the show, and as such, I will not participate in them.”

Show runners such as Tina Fey (“30 Rock”) and Greg Daniels (“The Office”) have followed suit, in actions and in words. Both joined picket lines Monday.

Should a settlement be reached before these and other shows run out of episodes, it’s highly possible that programs will return with little disruption in their airing schedule. But should the strike go on longer than anticipated (and the last time the WGA went on strike, in 1988, it lasted five months), networks are already stockpiling for Plan B — a plan that goes beyond simply airing reruns of popular programs.

For starters, shows that have yet to air, like ABC’s “Cashmere Mafia,” have been pushed back to air as possible replacements next winter. Secondly, and perhaps most significantly for networks, reality and game shows are unaffected by the writers’ strike. That means series such as “American Idol,” “The Amazing Race” and “Survivor” can continue to run as planned. More importantly, however, it also means that networks can continue to develop these shows to run as original programming. Viewers should expect a slew of reality programming should the strike continue. Finally, sports and special-event programming remain unaffected. That means less “Ugly Betty” but more ugly officiating, with the expectation being that networks will run more games during prime time.

It has been 24 hours of pencils down for writers. Should the strike continue until February, it might leave hard-core viewers no choice but to join them, if only as they put their pencils down on baseball scorecards — given nothing else original on TV to watch.

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