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Cable May Face Hot Summer

2/08/2008 7:00 PM Eastern

If the writers' strike is settled this week, cable TV's newest crop of original scripted shows could still be ready to debut this summer. But the medium may not have completely dodged the bullet.

Cable's shows could face atypical summer competition — from new broadcast-TV shows. Once production of broadcast shows resumes, the airing of new episodes could spill past May, depending on how they are rescheduled.

“If it's resolved relatively soon, cable will have more competition with original broadcast programming than it would normally have had in any average year,” Bill Carroll, director of programming for the Katz Television Group, said last week.

This past Saturday, Feb. 9, the Writers Guild of America had scheduled two “informational” meetings with its members in Los Angeles and New York, to go over the terms of a proposed deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

Once the strike is officially over, it will take four to six weeks for production to ramp up and start on new episodes of broadcast and cable shows, one studio official said.

The strike has had more of an impact on the broadcast networks than cable, because the Big Four were in the midst of airing their new fall programming, and ended production of those shows midstream when the strike started Nov. 5.

By contrast, most cable channels weren't yet in production, because they don't usually premiere their scripted shows until the summer, when the broadcast networks take “vacation.”

If the strike were to drag on for a few more months, upcoming production of cable's summer shows would have been scuttled. But even once the strike is settled, cable will face the uncertainty of waiting to see how broadcast decides to schedule its programming post-strike.

If, in fact, the strike is resolved, broadcasters will have to make quick, hard decisions about how they will proceed with interrupted seasons of scripted series such as ABC's Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives and Fox's House.

It's likely that at the very least, in some cases, the broadcast networks will have to produce enough new episodes to provide programming fare for May, which is a sweeps period.

And if broadcasters do order the full season of show, 22 episodes each, “it's likely that some of the series would still be running through the summer,” Carroll said.

Brad Adgate, Horizon Media's senior vice president and director of programming, though, suspects that broadcast won't run shows past May, but rather will save episodes for next season rather than burn them off this summer.

“I think there's some concern [from broadcasters] that after Memorial Day, usage levels really drop and people start to migrate to cable,” he said. “I have to presume cable is still going to embark on its ambitious summer programming schedule that's worked so well for it.”

The strike has effected some cable shows, postponing production of Lifetime Television's hot summer hit last year, Army Wives, as well as FX's Rescue Me and Damages. And FX only got part of its initial orders for Nip/Tuck, Dirt and The Riches. The network has decided not to produce the so-called “back end,” remaining six episodes each, of Dirt and The Riches for this season.

FX already has been running the Nip/Tuck installments it had in the can, and in March will start airing the seven episodes it has each of 13-show orders for Dirt and The Riches.

Sci Fi Channel later this month will start production on the fifth season of Stargate Atlantis. Since it is shot in Canada, it was never affected by the WGA strike.

And preproduction on AMC's Mad Men will also begin this month, because the show's producer, Lionsgate, reached an interim deal with the WGA. Actual production will likely begin in late March or early April, with the show's second season airing this summer.

“I am sure all networks are discussing many possibilities and contingency plans,” said Jack Wakshlag, Turner Broadcasting's chief research officer.

But good programming such as The Closer, Saving Grace and Monk, Wakshlag said, “will continue to resonate with viewers.”

September