Without Writers, TV Junkies Confront New Realities As the writers' strike drags on, broadcast networks are looking to reality shows and other unscripted programming — from an early Survivor to a revived American Gladiators.
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Without Writers, TV Junkies Confront New Realities

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Without Writers, TV Junkies Confront New Realities

Without Writers, TV Junkies Confront New Realities

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

It's been nearly six weeks already and it looks like the Hollywood writers' strike could drag on for months. The networks are beginning to run out of new episodes of scripted shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "CSI."

NPR's Kim Masters reports, that leaves them scrambling to figure out what to put on TV in January.

KIM MASTERS: When it comes to strike-proof programming, Fox has the ultimate weapon.

(Soundbite of reality show "American Idol")

Mr. RYAN SEACREST (Host, "American Idol"): This is "American Idol."

MASTERS: If the show doesn't rely on members of the Writers Guild, it's the kind of programming that the networks hope will keep them going during the strike. Other networks only wish they had something nearly as potent in their arsenal. But they, too, will have to try their luck with unscripted shows.

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 will bring you "Moment of Truth," a show in which contestants are interrogated while hooked up to a lie detector.

(Soundbite of show "Moment of Truth")

Unidentified Woman: Do fat people repulse you?

Unidentified Man #1: Do you really care about the starving children in Africa?

Unidentified Man #2: Do you think you will still be married to your husband five years from now?

MASTERS: 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 - "Survivor," "Dancing with the Stars" and of course, "American Idol," beyond that, they tend to prefer quality dramas and comedies.

Ms. SHARI ANNE BRILL (Senior Vice President, Carat USA): So when the reality shows start to replace the scripted hours, that's when you're going to have a problem - especially if the quality isn't there.

(Soundbite of show "American Gladiators")

Unidentified Man #3: Are you ready for this?

MASTERS: Bringing Hulk Hogan to primetime may not scream quality, but NBC is hoping to score big ratings with "American Gladiators," a redo of the old syndicated show. If it does well, advertisers will show up.

Marc Graboff is co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and he figures that the strike forces the network to throw a lot of unscripted spaghetti up the wall, maybe something will stick.

Mr. MARC GRABOFF (Co-chairman, NBC Entertainment): If we can find a "Dancing with the Stars" or "American Idol," it could be great for us. The thing that I believe NBC is lacking more than anything is a big-time reality show.

MASTERS: Like 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, like "Medium" and the original "Law & Order." NBC will also broadcast episodes of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," which had been airing on the USA Network.

But advertising executive Shari Anne Brill points out that "Law & Order" and "Criminal Intent" weren't on NBC's fall schedule because the ratings weren't strong.

Ms. BRILL: I guess as original episodes of scripted series start to dry up on the competition, maybe viewers will just want to watch anything that's new.

MASTERS: In the quest for something that at least seems new, CBS plans to broadcast the Showtime series "Dexter," a gruesome program about a serial killer. 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 Marc Graboff says his network will be able to fill its primetime hours for about six months. But he knows that with the audience already drifting away, the networks are taking a risk that a long hiatus will hurt hit shows that still attract viewers.

Mr. GRABOFF: It's not good for anybody that these shows are not airing and the audience isn't sticking with it. The concern is that what'll happen to the television business is like what happened to baseball or hockey after those strikes, that it's going to take a long time for their business to recover.

MASTERS: If the strike goes beyond January, Shari Anne Brill fears that it will also torpedo next year's television schedule. And given the hostile rhetoric on both sides in the strike, that fear seems to contain a lot more reality than the unscripted programming that's going to fill the airwaves.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

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