Hollywood Writers Strike Comes Home to Roost

Three hours a week of what one TV critic calls a “summer skankathon” and made-for-cable violent programming are on the schedule for TV viewers in the weeks ahead as the effects of the Hollywood writers' strike begins to really be seen on TV screens across America.

When the Writers Guild of America went out on strike two months ago many critics opined that the general public wouldn't notice until after New Year.  Enough series had programs in the can to see them through December when holiday programming tends to rule the schedule anyway.

They were right.

The first wave in what will be a weird winter TV season came when late night television talk shows, like Letterman and Leno, returned to the airwaves January 2.  Because many A-list stars won't cross the picket lines, late night hosts are showing up on each other's programs as guests.  It has been painful to watch and sometimes painful for the hosts.  An example of this came last Friday when Bill Maher appeared on NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien and went on an attack against religious believers, especially Catholics. 

Maher said: “You can't be a rational person six days of the week and put on a suit and make rational decisions and go to work and, on one day of the week, go to a building and think you're drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old space god. That doesn't make you a person of faith…That makes you a schizophrenic.”

O'Brien, looking uncomfortable, asked Maher whether anyone who is religious is schizophrenic. Maher replied, “Well, yes, sort of, because they have walled off a part of their mind.”

Maher makes a living trashing faith and is planning a “documentary” mocking religion which is scheduled to debut on Easter.

The real “living room” effects of the writer's strike, however, are programming decisions the networks are making to replace shows that have run out of new episodes.  The most egregious of these decisions is one CBS has made to pull the made-for-cable show Dexter, which airs on Showtime, into its Sunday schedule starting February 17. CBS and Showtime are both subsidiaries of Viacom.

Dexter is a show which features a serial killer as a hero.  And while the producers are currently editing the show “for language,” the very violent context of the show will be left intact. Keep in mind that programs on cable, and premium cable networks like Showtime, are often there because they are deemed to have content unsuitable for broadcast television, which must meet decency requirements established by the Federal Communications Commission.

NBC is also looking at cable programming to fill some of the void, including the shows Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Monk and Psych from the USA Network. 

The biggest change to the TV landscape will come in two weeks when the floodgate of reality programming will be opened.  While some of this is good news in terms of programming, like the return of American Idol (Fox) and Supernanny (ABC), other reality additions are not as welcome.  Washington Post TV writer Lisa de Moraes reported on January 7 that CBS will give its “summer skankathon” Big Brother three hours a week of prime air time starting in February.

Moraes also reported that network executives speculate there is “conservatively … twice as much reality programming on the prime time landscape as in first quarters past.”  Reality shows are much cheaper to produce than scripted fare, but “reality” shows can also become venues for voyeurism and should be approached with caution.

Another casualty in the strike is awards shows.  Late yesterday the Hollywood Reporter revealed that NBC will not telecast the Golden Globe awards.  The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which awards the Golden Globes, will announce the winners in a one-hour-long news conference on Sunday, January 20 which will be carried, as of this writing, by NBC News. 

What this means for viewers is no red carpet celebrity gazing and no political speeches from stars.  It also means a significant loss of ad revenue for NBC and raises the question of what will happen with the telecast of the Oscars which can be a lucrative night of programming – in terms of ad revenue and viewers – for the network that carries it.

Currently both writers and producers say that negotiations to end the strike are at an impasse.  The strike issues revolve primarily around residuals for programming that is shown in digital formats, like the Internet and on cell phones, as well as who the writer's guild should represent.