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Reality bites as TV strike goes on

14 December 07 09:15 GMT
By Peter Bowes
BBC News, Los Angeles

With no deal in sight between striking screenwriters and US TV producers, the television networks are planning a new year of shows - without scripted programmes.

For the first six weeks of the stoppage, most prime-time dramas and comedies have continued to air in their usual slots.

The only immediate casualties were the late-night comedy shows, but favourites likes Desperate Housewives and CSI have dominated the ratings, as if it were business as usual.

But that is about to change. "Basically the cupboard is bare at this point," says Rob Salem, TV critic for the Toronto Star.

"As much as they have been stockpiling scripts, there weren't nearly enough."

New episodes of popular shows such as Grey's Anatomy and Ugly Betty will run out by the end of the year. But with the strike set to drag on into 2008, the TV networks have the thorny problem of how to fill the schedules.

"They can't just show us the test pattern," Mr Salem says.

"It's going to mean a lot of reality shows. It's quite astounding the amount of stuff that's being produced."

On the picket lines, the striking writers are well aware that their carefully crafted dramatic dialogue will soon be replaced by the inane chatter of reality programmes.

"They're going to have to fill the airwaves with something," says Peter Bellwood, a British screenwriter and member of the Screen Actors Guild.

"I think the world is changing for writers in television."

But even reality shows, which encompass game shows and talent contests like American Idol, are finely crafted. They can continue to be made because their writers are not represented by the Writers' Guild contract, which is at the centre of the dispute.

"Ironically we were looking to cover reality writers," says Tony Puryear, who wrote the screenplay for Eraser, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"And that's one of the demands the studios have insisted that we take off the table."

But the value of reality programming, as a long-term multi-media audience winner, is in question.

"They've tried to repeat reality shows, they package them on DVD, they do not do the same kind of business as Ugly Betty or Desperate Housewives or some show where people fall in love with the character," says Lori Lakin Hutcherson, another screenwriter.

"No-one watches American Idol from two years ago," adds Takashi Bufford, who wrote the 1997 film Booty Call, starring Jamie Foxx.

"I think it's going to hasten the disaffection with reality TV if everything on TV during the strike is reality. People want the stories. You'll watch the Godfather once a year for 20 years. You're not going to do that with reality television."

Switch-off fear

The networks are also expected to show more repeats and may produce extra news magazine shows to fill the gaps left by dramas and comedies. Foreign-made shows could also find their way onto US TV.

But with the industry losing money to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a day, one of the biggest concerns is that viewers will switch off altogether.

"People are going to turn to other venues for entertainment, for example, broadband and the internet - in fact all the things the writers are fighting about," says Mr Salem.

A key issue in the dispute is payments to writers when their work is made available on the internet.

"You can watch re-runs on the internet, but when you want to watch them. The multi-platform issue is changing even as it's being fought over, which is an interesting phenomenon."

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