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Television Viewers Won't Feel Impact from WGA Strike

November 29, 2007

Published: November 29, 2007 at 12:17 PM GMT
Last Updated: November 30, 2007 at 12:17 PM GMT

Any day now we are going to begin reading stories about how the public is finally going to feel the impact of the WGA strike. The general consensus has been that those ruinous reruns would start appearing immediately following the November sweeps (which ended yesterday), signaling to one and all that the networks were out of fresh product and ushering in a prolonged period of lean television choices.

But this is only partly true. The broadcasters next week will still be on a roll with dynamic original offerings, including the breathlessly anticipated destruction of Wisteria Lane by a tornado on Desperate Housewives and the long-awaited nuptials of Kitty Walker and Sen. Robert McCallister on Brothers & Sisters, both Sunday night on ABC; a climactic confrontation between Hiro and Peter and the threat of world annihilation Monday night on NBC's Heroes, and the conclusion to the traumatic two-part tale of the ambulance crash that began two weeks ago on ABC's Grey's Anatomy. The big-ticket broadcast excitement doesn't end there: In addition to Grey's, the networks next Thursday are offering a cornucopia of sweeps-worthy series episodes. William Friedkin (the man who made The Exorcist) is the director of that night's CSI on CBS. Television legend Betty White will appear as herself on ABC's Ugly Betty. Henry Thomas (Elliot from ET!) will show up on CBS' Without a Trace. Meanwhile, Friday will bring with it a fresh episode of the best drama on television, NBC's Friday Night Lights, and a special episode of ABC's Women's Murder Club, one of the best-received new series of the fall.

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Basic cable is also primed for a strong December, with special Christmas-themed episodes of The Closer on TNT, House of Payne on TBS and Monk and Psych on USA Network; the ambitious three-part miniseries Tin Man on Sci Fi Channel; an episode of Hannah Montana featuring Dolly Parton on The Disney Channel, and four new episodes of summer sensation Saving Grace on TNT. Over on pay cable we'll see the season finales of Dexter and Brotherhood on Showtime and Extras on HBO.

So we're all good for another week or so. After that, the networks will begin to go into heavy repeat mode, and that's when the "sky is falling" stories should kick in, but they will be a collective and premature false alarm. Remember, the networks always go into heavy rerun mode in mid-December and they don't get back to business as usual until the first two weeks of January.

With no end to the strike in sight, it is difficult to predict how television will fare in the early weeks (or months) of 2008 and how people will respond. So far, the viewing public seems to care little about the strike's impending impact on their favorite shows. I haven't heard one moan or groan about all of the late-night comedy talk shows being in rerun mode these last few weeks, have you?

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And yet, there is certain to be sweeping disappointment among television viewers in the New Year, because while the early weeks of the 2007-08 season proved to be weak, with most of the networks' new shows failing to catch on and many of their returning favorites failing to recapture their previous glory, there have been spectacular bright spots. Desperate Housewives is having its best season since year one. (It's as if seasons two and three never happened.) After two months of lame storytelling, Heroes during the last two weeks has roared excitingly back to life, with thrilling cliffhangers at the end of each episode. Interesting things have been happening on Fox's House and CBS' CSI, Criminal Minds, NCIS and The Unit. ABC freshmen Pushing Daisies and Samantha Who?, both early favorites of critics across the land, have been getting better every week.

Losing these shows so early in the season while they are each building so much momentum is going to be problematic. But I'm interested to see how the networks respond to the overall problems at hand, and I'm not going to pass judgment on them at least until mid-January or later, because until then nothing will really have changed. By that time the broadcast networks' strike strategies and the public's response to them will have begun to take shape.

Tellingly, the broadcasters already have much exciting programming on tap for the top of the New Year. After this week's triumphant season finale of ABC's Dancing with the Stars, anticipation is building for its spin-off, Dance War, featuring charismatic Dancing judges Carrie Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli (competing to develop the most talented amateur dancers) and season two mirror-ball winner Drew Lachey as host. (It's due January 7th.) The first season of Dance War will be followed by the sixth season of Dancing, which ABC can expand to three nights if it must. ABC also has at least eight episodes of Lost in the can with which to light up the dark nights of winter.

Fox, of course, is in the best position of all the broadcasters, with perennial powerhouse American Idol set to begin its seventh season January 15th and plenty of fresh episodes of its popular animated series to spread around. It also has the reliable Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, many finished episodes of several scripted series that have yet to debut (including Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Canterbury's Law) and a host of funky reality shows in development that are in keeping with the network's history of unscripted midseason oddities. Bones and House will slide into premature rerun mode, and 24 will be absent, but other than that Fox should be in fine shape. (As an aside, it is worth remembering that 24 became almost impossible to sit through during its sixth season, sending fans away in droves, so there may not be quite so dramatic a hole in Fox' mighty midseason schedule as there would have been if 24 had remained in top form.)

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CBS is pulling together a special winter edition of its summer staple Big Brother to fill time periods come February. It also has new seasons of Survivor and The Amazing Race to rely on, not to mention its burgeoning arsenal of procedural crime dramas, most of which repeat rather well. And it has a seven-episode run of last season's quasi-success Jericho ready to go.

The CW has a batch of unproven reality shows, including the totally tacky Crowned: The Mother of All Pageants (set to premiere December 12th), a mother and daughter competition show that had advertisers howling at the network's upfront presentation last May. It also has new runs of America's Next Top Model and Beauty and the Geek, plus its successful (and strike-proof) Friday night franchise, WWE Smackdown!

NBC looks like it will be flapping in the breeze, with only a handful of original episodes from a few of its scripted series (including Law & Order) to rely on, as well as fresh editions of the aging Deal or No Deal and The Biggest Loser. There has been much talk about the celebrity version of Donald Trump's The Apprentice (coming January 3rd), but this franchise was already past its prime one season ago. Maybe the network should bring back Fear Factor (how difficult could that be?), or try to grab the hit music competition show Nashville Star from corporate sibling USA Network, or rush its summer hit America's Got Talent back into production.

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