Writers' Strike Puts Fox in the Catbird Seat

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, November 9, 2007

Revved up by remarks of the president of Fox's parent company about how the writers' strike benefits his company, the Writers Guild of America will focus its fury on the Fox lot this morning.

The guild circulated an e-mail to members urging picketers to mass at Fox's West Los Angeles studio at 10 a.m. for Day 5 of their strike, which has already shut down much of late-night TV and many prime-time productions.

On a conference call to discuss third-quarter earnings with investors and reporters Wednesday, News Corp. President and Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin said a strike is probably a positive for the company because the Fox network has a wider array of reality programming, including No. 1-ranked "American Idol" and a Sunday slate of animated series. Because of the logistics of producing animation, those series have far more scripts in the can than most comedy series. Against mostly reruns on the other networks, these shows could actually do better in the ratings than in seasons past, Chernin explained.

He wasn't exactly breaking news here. Fox was widely presumed to be in the best position among the networks to withstand a strike, because of "Idol" and its animated series and because several years now it has held back a lot of its new programming for the first quarter of the calendar year.

(The same day Chernin prattled on merrily to investors about the benefits of a writers' strike, Fox announced its Writers' Strike Schedule, which includes the introduction of a "Terminator" spinoff, a new Farrelly brothers single-camera comedy about dating called "Unhitched," and a slew of reality series that are unaffected by the strike -- except in that they will probably pop bigger ratings.)

But that's not the only good news for Fox in the strike, Chernin said. It's also going to cut the network's costs.

Citing the strike, Fox, like other studios, axed many of its overhead deals with producers. Chernin said the network would save more money on those axed deals and "story costs" and by not making pilots "than we lose in potential advertising."

Of course, the money saved by not making pilots for next season would be somewhat offset by the problems inherent to having, um, not made pilots for next season.

News Corp. is one of the companies that sent out get-back-to-work letters to some of those picketing "hyphenates" -- the writers who are also producers and who, from the studios' point of view, have a contract to keep producing their shows even while they're "pencils down" as writers. The hyphenates are the reason production has stopped even on some series with finished scripts waiting to be produced.

Yes, if you're grief-stricken the strike has shuttered the late-night shows -- depriving you of the opportunity to watch Jay Leno and David Letterman bill and coo over Meryl Streep, Robert Redford and Tom Cruise and forcing you to watch them be petted on "Larry King Live" or "Good Morning America" -- you are in for another big shock.

Your favorite sitcoms and some of your fave dramas also are being shut down: Fox's "Back to You" and " 'Til Death"; CBS's "Two and a Half Men," "Rules of Engagement" and "Big Bang Theory"; NBC's "The Office" and "Law & Orders"; and ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "Pushing Daisies."

Turns out the creative voices behind the multi-camera sitcoms like to write episodes on the fly and tinker during production. That's why they're so successful, and the genre is doing so well.

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