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How Cable Networks and Web Sites Can Benefit from the WGA Strike

November 8, 2007

Published: November 8, 2007 at 08:10 PM GMT
Last Updated: November 12, 2007 at 08:10 PM GMT

With all due respect to the screenwriting community, the occasion of their current work stoppage is one of great opportunity for dozens of cable networks and Internet sites.

If I were in charge at any of the basic cable networks that survive and thrive on the strength of their unscripted programming, I would be loading my schedule with my most popular shows, rushing orders for additional episodes and fast-tracking other reality projects. Of course, I like to think that the executives who run MTV, VH1, CMT, E!, Discovery Channel, Bravo, HGTV and others began to plan accordingly much earlier in the year, just as I like to think I would have seen the current situation coming had I been sitting at their desks. If one assumes that scripted programming will in early 2008 largely discontinue at the broadcast networks, there will be no better time for these cable networks to show off their product and increase the loyalty and emotional connections of new and existing viewers.

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Similarly, if I were in charge of marketing, publicity and promotion at a cable network I would be in hyper-drive right now. I would be advertising my product in every outlet that my budget allowed. (Certainly, this would be the right time for cable ad budgets to be fattened up, if only temporarily.) I would be pitching the stars of my reality shows to every television show, radio program, magazine, newspaper and Web site that will talk to them. With actors staying home or otherwise supporting striking writers, personalities from cable reality shows have a unique opportunity to stand out in the media. The timing is perfect for the stars of several unscripted cable series that are about to begin new seasons, including Bear Grylls (pictured above) of Discovery Channel's Man vs. Wild (which begins its second season tomorrow at 9 p.m.) and Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn of Bravo's signature hit Project Runway (which starts its fourth season next Wednesday).

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Proper promotion can create huge excitement for just about anything, including low-budget reality cable fare. Hell, under the right circumstances I can imagine turning to VH1's cheesy reality combo America's Most Smartest Model and The Shot on Sunday nights if Desperate Housewives and Brothers & Sisters are suddenly forced into rerun mode. I might even sit through and laugh at some of that titanic trash on E!, like Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

This wide-open window of strike-induced opportunity also applies to all of the pay cable networks. I'm sorry to see HBO's Tell Me You Love Me and Curb Your Enthusiasm and Showtime's Weeds and Californication end their current seasons just as so much of their broadcast competition is poised to dry up. Then again, this is an awfully good time for HBO and Showtime (and other cable networks) to further promote their On Demand services. There are hundreds of hours of compelling scripted programming available on them that have not been seen by millions of people.

For that matter, with original scripted programming under siege and the holidays approaching, every network and studio that releases product on DVD should be reducing prices right now, especially on boxed sets of television series. What better way for lovers of scripted primetime programming to cope with weeks or months of reruns and unscripted fare than by catching up with shows they didn't have time to watch the first time around or revisiting old favorites. (I'll be working my way through Twin Peaks and the BBC's Shameless should the worst come to pass.)

Meanwhile, this would be the right time for Internet sites that feature original made-for-the-Web series to ramp up awareness of their product. Individual creators of online content might also consider promoting themselves a bit beyond the norm. Maybe they will land on The Oprah Winfrey Show the next time she devotes an hour to the "stars" of YouTube, as she did earlier this week. Or they might land on The View, as did MySpace singing sensation Colbie Caillat on Wednesday. (More than 30 million people have visited Caillat's MySpace page to listen to her, and she just released her first album.)

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Look, it's not as if the broadcast networks are going to roll over and die if the strike lasts for a punishing period of time. There are several short-run scripted series set to debut in early '08, including Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (January 13) and New Amsterdam (February 22) on Fox. (Fox yesterday announced that it has postponed the season premiere of 24 to ensure that it can run without interruption once it begins. 24 is very vulnerable to prolonged in-season interruptions. So, for that matter, is ABC's Lost, which as of this writing is set to return in February.) The arrival of American Idol on Fox in January will make broadcast television hugely exciting for millions of people even if most scripted shows are in reruns.  If CBS goes forward with a new edition of Big Brother in February and makes the show better than ever (in other words, sexier and more dramatic than usual) it could bring a large audience of young people to the network. ABC has an unscripted hit in Dancing with the Stars.

Unscripted programming can work wonders for broadcast networks in the bleak winter months. Remember the Fox phenomenon Joe Millionaire? I am certain that at least one broadcast network will crank out a similarly successful new reality program within the next few weeks.

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