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Fall forecast: Cloudy

When top advertisers visited the broadcast networks for a first look at fall development slates, the talk was less about the shows and more about the potential of a work stoppage and a sagging economy that could spell doom at the May upfronts.

ABC, NBC, Fox, The WB and UPN rolled out the red carpet for Madison Avenue's heavy hitters in Los Angeles last week, letting the advertisers in on their pool of potential drama, sitcom and reality projects for the 2001-02 season. CBS met with advertisers in New York a week earlier. These peeks at new projects come two months before the networks' star-studded upfront presentations in New York, where fall lineups are unveiled.

But the double-whammy scenario of actor/writer strikes and the faltering economy cast a sober cloud over what are annually upbeat gatherings on some of Hollywood's top backlots.

Advertisers say they are preparing two separate strategies for buying ad time: with strike and without. Network executives shared their backup strategies in the event the Writers Guild of America and/or the Screen Actors Guild takes to the picket lines. The WGA could walk as early as May 1; SAG, by the beginning of July.

"We are talking to all our clients about the eventuality of a strike, and it seems like we have to be prepared for one because it looks like they are really going down that road," says Chris Geraci, senior vice president and director of national TV buying for BBDO OMD. "Some of the networks were a little bit better prepared for a strike than I thought. That's comforting to some degree."

Tom DeCabia, of media buyer Schulman-Advanswers NY, says the possibility of a strike may make his clients willing to place more of their ad dollars in the scatter market instead of loading up on the usual fall-season lineups. "Some people could hold back money: If you don't have to be out there, why waste your money on repeats or shows that aren't going to be there without a strike?" DeCabia asks. "But if you have a product that has to get out there and sell for Christmas, then you have to get your voice out there regardless of a strike."

Says Doug Seay, of ad firm Publicis & Hal Riney, "The dialogue is starting now, but I think a lot of people are going to wait to see what happens. May 1 will be a big date. I think it's going to be a slower upfront this year regardless. The strike will slow it down, the economy will slow it down."

Fox President of National Sales Jon Nesvig acknowledges that the slowing economy and potential strikes have brought "uncertainty" to this year's upfront season, but he remains confident that it will be business as usual once the networks unfurl their lineups in May. "It's up in the air more than a normal year. There is a lot of posturing going on both ways right now, but, every year, both sides start out pretty far apart, and, eventually, you figure out a way to make a deal. Hopefully, we'll figure out a way to do it this year, too."

Network programmers say they are prepared for whatever comes in September, and executives at both Fox and ABC maintain they are in the best position of the networks.

"Regardless of a work stoppage, and we are going to remain optimistic that one can be avoided, Fox will be ready to go with more new scripted entertainment series than any of our competitors and with more original episodes of successful returning series," claims Sandy Grushow, chairman, Fox Television Entertainment Group.

ABC Entertainment Group Co-Chairman Stu Bloomberg tells advertisers, "While we firmly believe a strike can be avoided, should one occur, ABC is by far the best prepared. In the unfortunate event that this happens, we will not have to rely on any repeat entertainment series at all."

Both sides presented strong cases to back up their words. For the fall, Fox has the exclusive rights to all of Major League Baseball's post-season play, including the World Series. On top of that, Fox executives say they have 13 episodes of new drama When I Grow Up and 13 episodes of producer Judd Apatow's latest comedy Undeclared. Fox also has at least seven episodes of new comedies Greg the Bunny and The Tick, as well as 13 episodes of anthology series Nightvisions. In terms of returning series, Fox executives vow to have five episodes apiece of The Simpsons and King of the Hill, four of That'70s Show, and 21 yet-to-air episodes of Family Guy. Also in the hopper in case of a strike is another installment of Temptation Island, new reality project Love Cruise, and more than a dozen top theatrical releases.

ABC has Monday Night Football, original episodes of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, 39 episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the second installment of The Mole, new reality series The Runner, four miniseries and 146 theatrical titles, including the broadcast premieres of Saving Private Ryan and Sixth Sense.

NBC executives didn't reveal much about their backup plans, touching briefly on some potential reality projects and everything producer Dick Wolf will have ready. He vows to have six original Law & Order's, 10 episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and 13 of new series Law & Order: Criminal Intent ready for the fall, strike or no strike.

Programmers at The WB are working on nine potential reality series that could be used in the event of a strike, including four projects already in production. In the network's reality hopper is a remake of That's Incredible, a prime time version of co-owned Warner Bros. Domestic TV's coming syndication series Elimidate, and an Eco-Challenge-like series called No Boundaries. WB executives say they could add a movie night with titles from Warner Bros. as well if there is a strike.