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CABLE'S FALLBACK

Turner Network Television has already delayed premiering new episodes of Bull, its original dramatic series-twice. Now, they're slated for September.

And Home Box Office won't premiere its $100 million World War II miniseries from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, Band of Brothers, until September, rather than this summer as was once planned.

Cable normally doesn't make that much of a splash in the fall, in terms of programming. But things are a little different this year: A strike by writers and actors could deny broadcasters the scripted shows they typically trumpet and trot out in September, in time for the new TV season.

In a number of ways, cable will be in the catbird seat if the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild take to the picket lines this summer, according to cable network officials.

To start with, many cable networks specialize in news, sports and nonfiction programming-much of which is produced in-house-and much of it isn't covered by the writers or actors' union. That means those cable services' programming won't be affected by a strike, and may actually get a boost. Viewers may sample cable more often if there's less new scripted fare on broadcast.

"It's hard to make predictions, but to some extent if people are not seeing as much drama on broadcast, they may turn to more of the documentary services like ourselves," said Abbe Raven, executive vice president and general manager of The History Channel.

Secondly, to avoid the Big Four's noise in the fall, cable for years has made a habit of debuting its new original programming in the summer. That means cable typically has series and made-for-TV movies in production earlier in the year than broadcast networks, to be ready for June through early September.

As a result, much of cable's new programming is finished or nearly done, way ahead of the pending strike deadline.

For example, HBO officials earlier this year denied they were pushing Band
back to the fall because of the looming strikes. Nonetheless, HBO Original Programming president Chris Albrecht told TV critics the premium service would be "genius" if the strike does take place, since Band of Brothers
is "already in the can and done."

The WGA's contract with networks and studios expires May 1, while SAG's pact is up two months later, June 30. The WGA is looking for an increase in the 2-percent license fee that writers now get for movies and series sold to cable, among other demands.

While many are upbeat, there are industry skeptics who don't believe cable will be a beneficiary if there is a strike. Without scripted series, the broadcast networks will turn to more reality-based fare and news. In fact, last week CBS Entertainment president Les Moonves told advertisers that in the event of a strike, his network has a batch of reality shows that could be ready for the fall-and that it might expand its primetime news magazines.

So instead of helping cable, the strike may heat up the competition from broadcasters in programming genres that have been cable's bailiwick, like nonfiction and news, some naysayers predicted. There is also the risk that any glut of unscripted reality shows sparked by the strike may drive viewers away from TV.

"Everyone [broadcast and cable] will drown in a sea of conformity," said Jon Mandel, co-managing director of media-buying shop MediaCom.

If there is a strike, Mandel predicts, bored TV viewers will abandon television for more interesting fare on the Internet-and TV will never fully regain that audience.

"The entire industry is putting its head in the sand," Mandel said. "Cable and broadcast will lose audience. HUT [homes using television] levels will go down.

"The industry is in such a self-destruct mode. People do not realize how damaging this strike will be."

STRIKING A NERVE

The strike is such a touchy subject that many cable executives don't want to talk about it publicly. Officials at Showtime, HBO and TNT, for example, couldn't be reached for comment.

However, a TNT spokesman pointed out that the general-entertainment network has a number of high-profile original movies already finished and set for the summer, including the miniseries The Mists of Avalon
and the biopic James Dean.
TNT in June will debut the series Witchblade.In an unusual stunt, it plans to run it at 9 p.m. between reruns of Law & Order
at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Comedy Central sees a strike as "an opportunity for us," according to network spokesman Tony Fox.

The network works with many production companies that aren't WGA signatories and is set for the summer with new episodes of its returning series, such as South Park,
as well as the new celebrity talk-show parody PrimetimeGlick
with Martin Short.

Cable networks that have expanded into scripted series are optimistic about their prospects, since much of their original programming is done or nearly done in order to be ready for their typical summer premieres.

"We're actually pretty lucky, and that's part being forward-looking and part luck," said Sci Fi Channel general manager Bonnie Hammer.

Last year, Sci Fi filled its summer lineup with all-new original series and fresh episodes of its returning shows. The experiment was so successful that Sci Fi planned to repeat that move. It now has shows either completed or in the works, all slated for mid-June to mid-September.

"We already have original series logged in for the season," Hammer said.

Fox Family Channel officials also maintained that they are not only ready for a strike, but they think they'll benefit.

"For the fourth quarter, we're in great shape," Fox Family president Maureen Smith said. "We started planning for this back in September. We knew going into this summer we wanted fresh original programming."

Fox Family has made two holiday programming stunts- 13 Days of Halloween
and 25 Days of Christmas
-into its hallmarks. It has "already put much of that in the can," according to Smith.

"Cable has the advantage in that audiences have come to expect and like when we repackage programming," she said. "Stunting will do well if there is a prolonged strike."

Hammer and other cable officials agreed with Smith's reasoning.

"In the event of a strike, cable will in many ways be in a better position than broadcast, in terms of the way we schedule," Hammer said. "We do a lot of international co-productions, which are not U.S. talent.

"And the way we schedule and the way we program is less dependent on lots of new programming 24/7. We're just in a better position to weather a storm like this."

A number of cable networks will debut reruns of off-network series this fall. Viewers may opt to tune them in, if broadcasters don't have scripted dramas and comedies to air.

Fox Family, for example, will debut Growing Pains
and The Wonder Years.
And FX this fall will add reruns of Ally McBeal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
and The Practice
to its lineup.

Lifetime Television executive vice president of entertainment Dawn Tarnofsky-Ostroff said viewers expect to see acquired reruns on cable, and aren't bored or turned off by them in that venue. The women's network also will be in a good position even if there is a strike, since it typically launches new series in July and therefore already has them in production.

"We really are in a different position than the broadcast networks," Tarnofsky-Ostroff said. "Our shows are on a different schedule."

Disney Channel has been more aggressive than usual in terms of programming, giving a quicker green light to original movies and ordering bigger batches of original series, according to general manager Rich Ross. For example, Disney ordered 31 episodes of Lizzie McGuire
instead of the usual 21, he said.

"We do know going into the fall we will have new episodes of every series and a new original movie every month," Ross said.

If the strike happens, cable networks such as Disney often have large programming libraries they can use.

"For cable, this is a real opportunity to show things off," Ross said. "You can pull programming off the library. This allows cable to be opportunistic."

Like Disney, Nickelodeon had made some large orders for its original live-action series, such as Caitlin's Way,
according to Kevin Kay, Nick's senior vice president of production and development.

And while some voice-over work for Nick's animated shows might be affected by the strikes, in a way that's a moot point. Animated series are often done a year ahead of time, so they're already finished up for this year.

"We're in pretty good shape," Kay said. "And we can produce games during a strike. There are a lot of game and reality shows we can plug in."

Cable networks that specialize in nonfiction programming, such as the Discovery Networks U.S. stable, History Channel and Home & Garden Television, don't plan to adjust or alter their upcoming schedules in the event of a strike, even though officials at some of them think they will be the winners in a strike situation.

"We're not in that-up-against-the-world cram that a lot of people are in [in terms of production]," said John Ford, president of the content group for all Discovery Communications Inc.'s domestic networks. "And our voice-overs are not affected by the strike."

Neither he nor History Channel's Raven expect to change their program plans due to the strike.

"Our schedule for third quarter is just about put to bed." Ford said. "We are not going to do anything differently to take advantage of the situation."

He doesn't think nonfiction cable services such as Discovery Channel are guaranteed a free ride if the strike happens.

REALITY CHECK

"If the broadcasters do more nonfiction, that could hurt us," Ford said.

But on the other hand, Discovery Channel's ratings haven't been diminished by CBS' Survivor, yet the channel saw its ratings drop during news coverage of the election recount this fall, Ford said. Home & Garden Television saw a similar hit in its ratings as the news channels covered the election recount, HGTV president Burton Jablin said.

Added Ford, "We're far more likely to be affected by a war in the Middle East than a writer's strike."

Jablin said he still believes networks such as HGTV will get a lift if there is a strike, and the broadcast networks are forced, in part, to air a lot of reruns in addition to new reality shows.

"Information-based programmers will benefit," Jablin said. "Viewers will have a choice other than reruns. Information-based networks will all benefit from the additional rerun factor."

E! Entertainment Television will have new original programming with or without a strike, since it produces most of it in-house, according to executive vice president of programming and content Greg Brannan.

The bigger strike issue for E! is that since it covers Hollywood-with an emphasis on TV and movie making-a lack of activity on that front would pose a challenge, Brannan said.

"This issue is right in our wheelhouse," he said.

But E! is making contingency plans so that it has enough content during the strike.

"E! is talking to the talent community right now," Brannan said. "We'll be able to adjust and react fairly quickly to the strike."