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Silver Lining in WGA Strike?

The writers' strike that may hit primetime scripted TV in a big way as soon as this week is unlikely to affect syndication, say many industry executives. In fact, if the strike goes on for several months, it could be a boon to syndication, in both first-run and off-net.

The Writers Guilds of America (WGA) West and East are in an increasingly tense stand-off with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the group that represents the studios. As of late last week, the WGA had 26 demands on the table, many of which have to do with increased residuals for writers for content that's distributed digitally. Many observers don't expect the strike to be resolved by the Oct. 31 contractual deadline, nor do they expect it to be resolved simply or quickly. Networks have stockpiled some new episodes, but if the strike lingers, new episodes of scripted TV shows could be off the air for months.

Most syndicated shows don't employ guild writers, and if they do, they have already made significant contingency plans.

Warner Bros.' The Ellen DeGeneres Show, for example, has several guild writers on staff, all of whom will strike. DeGeneres herself is a member, but she's also a member of the Screen Actors Guild, and she's hired as a performer, not a writer, on the show. So she'll keep producing shows, possibly with more improvisation, more celebrity interviews and fewer written segments.

“We're definitely going to do the show and Ellen feels confident in her ability to do it,” says one Warner Bros. executive.

CBS Television Distribution has three shows that employ guild writers: Dr. Phil, Entertainment Tonight and The Insider, although those shows will continue. ET and The Insider writers labor under separate WGA news contracts. (So do writers on NBC Universal's Access Hollywood, which will continue.) Dr. Phil may be required to read less off the teleprompter, but that show also will go on.

CBS' Jeopardy! and Disney-ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire both use guild writers. Jeopardy! has several months of shows in the can, and many months of questions written, and it could also revert back to old questions if the strike went on past that point.

Millionaire will complete shooting for the season in the next week, so it's covered.

Other popular first-run shows—such as CBS' The Oprah Winfrey Show or Disney-ABC's Live With Regis and Kelly—don't use guild writers, say show spokespersons. What's more, “Regis just needs a newspaper,” jokes one syndication executive.

Locked In

TV stations cannot preempt network primetime, according to their affiliate contracts and for the most part, don't want to.“In these times we need to support the network and act like a partner,” said Alan Frank, president of the Post-Newsweek Station Group. “Unless it goes on forever and ever; that's when you start talking about contingency plans.”

Still, the networks are likely prepared to allow stations to air library programming and double-runs of syndicated shows should the strike go on for months.

One syndication head said he's already negotiating with TV stations to give them double-runs of off-net sitcoms and first-run shows. Should primetime turn into nothing but repeats and reality, stations would have other programming in their back pockets.

And with no original shows on the air, oldies but goodies could take on a new luster. Said one industry observer: “Shows like Seinfeld and Friends could become popular again.”