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Nets arm for strike

Fall 2000 was supposed to be the rough period for the broadcast networks, with election coverage and the Summer Olympics battling it out with original series in prime time. But fall 2001 could be an all-out disaster in Hollywood.

Writers Guild of America (WGA), Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) appear headed for the picket lines next spring, and production of network and cable TV series could come to a screeching halt if the opposing sides can't come together.

Some 10,000-plus members of the Writers Guild appear ready to walk off the job May 1 and another 140,000 SAG/AFTRA members could do the same at the end of June if their demands are not met. With all three unions' three-year contracts coming up for renewal at the top Hollywood studios and networks, the issue of syndication and residual revenue is taking center stage.

The ongoing SAG and AFTRA strike against national advertisers deals with that same issue, and, because that strike doesn't appear ripe for resolution anytime soon, it's putting network and studio brass on high alert.

Everything from prime time series to daytime soaps and late-night talkers could be shut down for weeks or even months. Executives at all of the major broadcast networks have begun exploring their options.

"It's not a pretty picture," says one top network programmer, who says he expects a work stoppage. "I think, right now, people are just sort of talking about it and expecting it to happen, but not really thinking through how significant and deep an impact a strike could have.

"There is no reason to believe that it would end quickly, and there is every reason to believe that the Writers Guild and SAG could go on strike at the same time."

Not even the chief negotiator for the studios and networks seems to believe a strike can be avoided. "SAG and AFTRA are so involved in the ongoing strike against the advertisers, that they really aren't ready to have any serious conversations with us yet," says Nick Counter, President of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. "We will explore trying to avoid the train wreck, but given the positions that have been taken in the advertising negotiations, those same issues will likely be roadblocks for our negotiations."

But the major broadcast networks are not just sitting around.

Reality-show formats are being gobbled up, production cycles are being expanded and network libraries are being dusted off. At NBC, top executives have already had meetings on the subject and will continue to do so. "Right now, we're just looking at everything that might be affected and doing a lot of fact-finding," says an NBC spokeswoman. "The mission right now is to find out what would be available to us in case we went into strike mode."

NBC recently signed on for a pair of reality series from Dutch producer Endemol Entertainment (Big Brother), and Dateline NBC could move into a five-day-a-week program at the network if there is a strike, sources say.

At CBS, executives claim they have been taking this "seriously" for some time. "We're ordering movies earlier than in the past, we're planning for more reality programming and our newsmagazines are ready to ramp up if necessary."

ABC and FOX executives all said similar things, while executives at The WB are left wondering what could happen to the network that has no news division, no sports and doesn't do reality programs. Sources say a number of the networks are asking the studios to produce more than the usual number of episodes for the coming year.

"They are asking us to supply them with more scripts and probably more episodes; instead of 22 episodes they want 28 or 30 so that they can stockpile episodes," one studio supplier explains. "We'll have to see how that goes over with the unions."

In cable, where networks are getting much more involved in original programming, executives are also preparing.

"With the original concepts that we are developing, that we feel strongly about, we are going after them on a much more accelerated pace," says FX Networks President Peter Liguori. "Secondly, we are looking at a more accepting view of reality programming..Our hope is there is no strike and that a win-win situation can be hammered out, because no one will win with a strike."

That's exactly what executives at the WGA and SAG want to accomplish. Both guilds were trying to downplay any talk of a potential strike last week. "We have issued nothing about a strike next year and we think all of this talk is extremely premature," says SAG's Greg Krizman.