What a writers' strike means for your TV habit

Kiefersutherland_24_s7_240_2The Writers Guild of America's contract with movie and TV producers expires at midnight Oct. 31, and barring a last-minute breakthrough in what have been singularly unproductive negotiations so far, a strike is a very real possibility.

Hollywood hasn't endured a writers strike in close to 20 years; the last one, in the spring summer of 1988, dragged on for five months and delayed the start of the 1988-89 TV season by several weeks.

The big sticking points this year are guild demands for an increase in residuals for home video and new media, and jurisdiction over work done specifically for non-traditional media (webisodes, cell-phone content and the like). The guild lays out its case here and here, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers offers up reasons why it's not willing to do those things here. You can get blow-by-blow coverage of the negotiations in this LA Times archive.

If a strike happens -- it could come as early as Thursday or a week to 10 days after that, according to various news reports -- production on most scripted TV series would probably shut down soon afterward. The flow of movies into theaters wouldn't be affected as much, as they have a longer lead time.

So, what does all this mean for you, the TV watcher? Probably something like this:

Right away: The first casualties would probably be late-night shows, ranging from Saturday Night Live to The Late Show to The Colbert Report. Since they rely on fresh material each day, there's no way those shows could function if its writers -- which usually include the host -- aren't working. Daytime soaps could also get hit relatively quickly if they run out of already-written scripts.

Primetime: In most cases, network shows have enough episodes finished to run through November sweeps and possibly a week or two into December, when they'd be going into holiday reruns anyway. That means serial shows like Heroes and Prison Break will likely reach the conclusion of their first story arcs. Most shows also have a couple of scripts in the bank -- strike fears are partly what prompted the rash of extra-script orders for new shows this fall -- but if they go into production, writers won't be around to make changes on the fly.

After that: Everyone has been predicting a schedule full of unscripted shows and newsmagazines if there's a prolonged strike -- writers for those shows aren't covered by the Writers Guild -- and that's probably what's going to happen. The CW has about a half-dozen shows in the pipeline, and everyone else has game shows or other reality ideas in development too. FOX, of course, has the biggest hammer in American Idol, which will be back in January as planned.

What about Lost and 24? Hard to say. Both series, which are scheduled to return early next year, have been in production for some time and will have several episodes ready to air, strike or no strike. But the whole reason they're held back until midseason is so they can air without interruption, and that'd be all but impossible if writers are out for more than a couple of weeks.