It's looking like the Hollywood writers' strike could drag on for months. The TV networks are beginning to run out of new episodes of scripted shows like Grey's Anatomy and CSI — and they're scrambling to figure out what to put on the airwaves in January.
When it comes to strike-proof programming, Fox has the ultimate weapon: American Idol, because the show doesn't rely on members of the Writers Guild. Other networks will have to try their luck with unscripted shows, too.
CBS will trot out Survivor in February instead of waiting for summer, and it's cooking up a celebrity version of the old game show Password. Fox, for its part, will bring you Moment of Truth, a show in which contestants are interrogated while hooked up to a lie detector.
The rush to unscripted programming worries Shari Anne Brill, who helps advertisers figure out where to buy commercial time. Advertisers like a few big reality shows like Survivor, Dancing with the Stars and of course American Idol. Beyond that, they tend to prefer quality dramas and comedies.
"When the reality starts to replace the scripted hours, that's when you're going to have a problem — especially if the quality isn't there," Brill says.
Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, figures that if the strike forces the networks to throw a lot of unscripted spaghetti at the wall, maybe something will stick.
"If we can find a Dancing with the Stars or American Idol, it could be great for us," he says. "The thing I think NBC is lacking more than anything is a big-time reality show."
One reality show Graboff and NBC hope to score with: American Gladiators, a re-do of the old syndicated tournament show.
Like the other networks, NBC also has some episodes of new scripted shows in the can, including Lipstick Jungle with Brooke Shields. And it has several fresh installments of existing programs, including Medium and the original Law & Order. NBC will also broadcast episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which had been airing on the USA Network.
In the quest for something that at least seems new, CBS plans to broadcast the Showtime series Dexter, a gruesome show about a serial killer who works on the Miami police force. The network has taken heat from the conservative Parents' Television Council, which says Dexter is too violent for broadcast television. A network spokesman says a sanitized version already exists, because there have always been plans to sell it in syndication.
NBC's Graboff says his network will be able to fill its prime-time hours for about six months. But he knows that with the audience already drifting away, the networks are taking a risk: A long hiatus could hurt the hit shows that still attract viewers.
"The concern is that what'll happen with the television is like what happened to baseball or hockey after those strikes," Graboff says. "It's going to take a long time for those businesses to recover."
If the strike goes beyond January, Shari Anne Brill fears that it will also torpedo next year's TV schedule. And given the hostile rhetoric on both sides in the strike, there could be just as much reality in that scenario as in the networks' increasingly unscripted lineups.