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Two scenarios

With the potential for two talent strikes in Hollywood, the major broadcast networks' upfront presentations next month are shaping up to be anything but normal. Most networks will likely arrive in New York with both a plan A and a plan B.

Jittery advertisers and media buyers say they need to know what the networks will do if a strike by the Writer's Guild of America and/or the Screen Actors Guild occurs.

"If they are expecting advertisers to spend a lot of money, they may want to have their ducks in a row," says TN Media's Stacey Lynn Koerner.

"I think the networks are going to give us their A schedules, but I think they will also have to tell us what their precise backup plans are should there be a strike," says media buyer Paul Schulman of Schulman/Advanswers NY.

As for what network executives' will do at their lavish presentations in New York during the week of May 14-18, most secretly say that it depends on where the unions are in their negotiations with the Hollywood studios but that most will have two schedules in hand: a normal fall schedule and one "strike-proof" lineup.

CBS President and CEO Les Moonves says that, if there is a writers' strike come May 16, when the network holds its upfront presentation at Carnegie Hall, he will have to present advertisers with an "alternative" schedule.

"The honest answer is, we are still trying to determine what is in the best interest of the media buyers," says Jordan Levin, The WB co-president of entertainment. "We obviously want to facilitate the best understanding of what our intentions are. And how to do that is something that we are strategizing. We will have two schedules in our heads, and we would present both if it makes sense."

UPN President Dean Valentine doesn't "want to commit the network to anything until I have a better sense for what's going to happen. Clearly, there will be a coherent strike strategy in terms of what we present to the advertisers. I promise you, if there is a strike, there will be very specific schedules out early enough for the advertisers."

Sources say that ABC, NBC and Fox will probably present only their A schedules at the upfronts, but all three will have backup schedules in their pockets. All three networks declined comment.

One top network executive says it would be "ludicrous" to present anything other than an A schedule at the upfronts. "I don't think there is a chance in the world that anyone is going to stand up there and announce a schedule with a bunch of stuff on it that is going to leave advertisers yawning in the aisles. I just find it hard to believe that someone is going to stand up there, having spent tens of millions of dollars in development, with indeed billions of dollars on the line, and announce a strike schedule."

The network executive adds, "I think, ultimately, everyone is going to announce their non-strike fall schedule and, much like everybody did in the pre-upfront meetings in March, do their best job at reassuring advertisers that, in the event of a strike, we'll be prepared to face whatever comes our way."

Last month, the six largest networks took time out during their annual pre-upfront meetings to outline their preparations for a backup fall schedule. Nearly every network listed reality projects, the number of original episodes it will have in the fall regardless of strikes and movies it's stockpiled.

Maybe there won't be any strikes after all. There was positive news coming out of Hollywood last week on both union fronts. First, WGA officials agreed to return to negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers on Tuesday. The two sides broke off talks angrily on March 1. The film and TV writers' current contract with studios is up May 1.

As for SAG, the actors' union has set up its first negotiation meetings with the AMPTP. The two sides will sit down to discuss a new three-year contract on May 10 in Los Angeles. They have until June 30 to hash out a deal.