Striking writers met over the weekend and, with a tentative agreement backed Sunday by union leaders, are poised to end their 14-week walkout. Even so, the lengthy strike means the gap that led to more repeats and reality will persist as production ramps up. What does it all mean? When will favorites return? USA TODAY's Gary Levin answers key questions.
SCHEDULE: When will our shows come back?
Q: What happens next?
A: Writers Guild board members on Sunday urged the 10,500 striking members to ratify a new three-year agreement with the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, a group negotiating on behalf of major studios. Members will vote Tuesday to suspend the strike pending ratification of the contract, and are expected to log onto their laptops Wednesday, 100 days after turning them off. (Executive producers of TV shows, however, can go back today.)
Q: How will TV reboot after the strike?
A: Most prime-time series will need six to eight weeks to write, produce and edit new episodes, but a handful of series (The Office, Two and a Half Men, Desperate Housewives) have one or two scripts nearly ready, which could shorten that time frame.
With few exceptions, most top series will come back between mid-April and early May and air four to six new episodes. Some networks want to keep shooting new shows, hoping to keep them on the air into June to help win back viewers, or store up extra episodes for late summer or fall, partly as insurance against a possible actors' strike June 30. That goal might be hampered because of budgeting problems or stars' film commitments. And serialized dramas will have a harder time for creative reasons.
NBC's Heroes will wait for fall, because of the expense and hurdles of filming a few episodes with a self-contained story. Fox's 24 will produce the remaining 16 episodes of its planned season this spring, to avoid losing options on its actors, but the drama won't return till next January.
"We have to have some kind of abbreviated wrap-up for some shows," says producer Greg Berlanti (Brothers & Sisters). "And for others we're going to have to create the beginning of a new season" in unexpected places. "It's challenging creatively, but it could also end up being inspiring."
But not all shows will return right away: Some newcomers that are neither hits nor flops, such as Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money, Chuck and Life, are expected to get new-episode orders but won't be back until fall.
Q: What about late-night talk shows?
A: Just as they were the first to shut down, late-night shows will feel the effects of a restart first, because jokes are written and delivered the same day the shows air. All the late-night shows returned in early January, and David Letterman and Craig Ferguson had their writers back, too, thanks to side deals with the writers' union.
Though some viewers may not have noticed the absence of writers for Leno, Conan or Jon Stewart, who have been writing their own jokes, the hosts have described the strain on air. And the shows have been unable to book top actors, who have stayed away in support of writers. With a settlement, they'll show up again.
NBC's Saturday Night Live, which has been dark since Nov. 3, is expected to resume new shows on Feb. 23.
Q: How will the strike affect fall?
A: Even with a quick settlement, the traditional September premiere week will look different. "It's likely there will be fewer new shows, the rollout will be scattered and, ideally, the success rate will be higher," says John Rash, ad-buying chief at ad agency Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis.
The traditional winter development season -- in which new-series ideas are pitched, written and sold -- was hobbled by the strike, but the settlement prevents a complete wipeout. Still, the number of holdovers from this season will limit the number of new shows this fall.
Some say fewer higher-profile pilots will have a better chance of standing out, such as sci-fi dramas Fringe, starring Joshua Jackson, a potential Fox series from producer J.J. Abrams; and Eleventh Hour, a Jerry Bruckheimer drama for CBS. But fewer choices will reduce the margin for error in a failure-prone business.
Q: Will there be more reality series and less scripted fare?
A: Probably yes, but TV was moving in that direction anyway, as part of a move to cut costs and boost profits by reducing the amount of expensive scripted programming. NBC has been more successful with shows such as Deal or No Deal and Biggest Loser than with scripted series. American Idol has been TV's top show for six years, and Survivor remains an enduring hit.
Scripted series won't fade away, because they help define networks, bring in higher ad rates and lure a wider swath of the TV audience. "There are a significant amount of viewers who are 'reality rejectors,' who don't want that genre," especially men, Rash says. "Losing them, even temporarily, is a setback."
But the reality shows stockpiled during the strike (hello, Big Brother!) will be more prevalent until sitcoms and dramas get back on track.
Q: Will the strike have long-lasting effects on the TV business?
A: Impossible to say. Networks are talking tough now, vowing permanent changes in the way they develop, schedule and market series, in ways that viewers won't often recognize.
At an industry conference last month, NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker said "broadcast networks can no longer spend tens of millions of dollars every year creating dozens of pilots that will never see the light of day," and vowed to sharply reduce the use of prototype episodes. NBC already has experimented with ordering series based on promising scripts.
And studios already used the strike to trigger escape clauses in contracts with unproductive writer/producers not attached to current or planned series, canceling development deals that will save them millions.
But Hollywood is a town steeped in ritual, and actors, directors, talent agents and crewmembers also thrive on the showbiz economy. So it remains to be seen how lasting these changes will prove.
Q: What happens to movies derailed by the strike?
A: Behind the scenes, movie studios aren't sure about the answer to this, either. A number of high-profile films -- Johnny Depp's Shantaram, the superhero-filled Justice League of America and Tom Hanks' Da Vinci Code prequel Angels & Demons -- are among the sidetracked projects.
What will it take to get these films back on track? Sony Pictures still hopes Angels & Demons remains on target for May 2009 and expects to resume work on the script ASAP. Balancing the schedules of the stars is always the biggest question -- will they decide to leap to another project? Competition for the biggest names will be fierce once work resumes.
However, movie production on finished scripts has continued throughout the strike and can be sped up to compensate for any scheduling holes. Just as in the last lengthy writers' strike, which lasted five months in 1988, moviegoers won't face empty multiplexes. The pipeline has enough in reserve to keep the flow steady.
Q: Will the Oscars proceed as planned?
A: Yes, the ceremony Feb. 24 will be largely unaffected, and Jon Stewart remains as host. At last week's nominees luncheon, producer Gil Cates -- then uncertain about the strike's outcome -- talked of the difficulty of simultaneously planning two shows, one with writers and a substantial celebrity turnout, and the other without. "We're very hopeful that things will be worked out soon, and it does look good, but regardless I look forward to all of us being together on Oscar night."
But the ceremony is likely to be stripped down in one respect: With less time for planning, you won't see the kind of elaborate filmed set pieces that have dotted previous Oscars.
Just as they shied away from late-night TV, major stars unwilling to present or collect awards would have spelled disaster, much like the glorified list-reading of this year's decimated Golden Globes. With no picket line to cross, the stars will feel free to attend in their most glamorous attire.
Q: Did the writers get what they wanted?
A: The walkout did yield some gains, and more than the Directors Guild of America got when they completed early negotiations for their own new contract, which expires June 30.
The central issue was compensation for use of their work in new media, such as when TV episodes are streamed on websites. (Writers want a chunk of revenue from ads sold.)
Under a three-year deal, after a "promotional" window of 17 to 24 days, writers get a flat fee for the first two years, and -- in a concession by studios -- a 2% cut in the third year, allowing them to profit further if online growth is as robust as some expect.
"I'm thrilled," says Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, a member of the WGA negotiating committee. "I think we made the best deal we could make, and I am ready to go back to work. Just the fact that we got jurisdiction over the Internet meant everything, and we got more than that."
Others were more tempered. "Any kind of deal like this leaves both sides a little unhappy," says Lost executive producer Carlton Cuse. "But we were all firmly convinced this was the best we could do," particularly because the strike also left actors, crewmembers and much of Hollywood out of work. "The yield for staying on strike for many months would not justify the pain and financial hardship."
Contributing: Bill Keveney and Anthony Breznican.