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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - With a deal taking shape to end a three-month walkout by Hollywood writers, the strike-hobbled television industry is scrambling to get back on its feet and salvage what remains of the broadcast season.
Churning out fresh episodes of hit dramas and comedies after a lengthy production shutdown is more complicated than simply hitting the "power-on" button of a remote control.
Industry executives say it will likely take eight weeks to restore favorite shows like "House," "CSI," "Grey's Anatomy," and "Desperate Housewives" to prime time once the strike ends.
Even if the labor dispute were settled by next week, as some have anticipated, viewers would be unlikely to see original episodes of returning hourlong dramas before early April. The same is true for single-camera comedies such as "The Office" or "Scrubs," which like dramas, are shot more like a film and without live audiences.
Multi-camera sitcoms like "Two and a Half Men" and "Back to You" take less time to make -- three to four weeks from start to finish -- and could be on the air before mid-March.
The film industry, which operates on a production cycle of months or years, has seen a handful of projects put on hold by the strike but otherwise has so far been relatively unscathed.
The television industry has been harder hit since 10,500 members of the Writers Guild of America walked off the job on November 5. Studio executives and WGA leaders are said to have agreed on the outlines of a settlement, raising hopes the strike could be lifted as early as next week.
The immediacy of TV makes it more vulnerable to a work stoppage, and with most dramas and comedies halted since mid-December, productions must be ramped up from a standstill.
"The writing process itself tends to take a couple of weeks for a script to be ready to shoot, and that's just the beginning. Then you have to get it out to directors, scout locations, cast it and build sets," said one studio executive.
Filming a drama generally takes about eight days, with another week and a half needed for editing and other post-production work, he said.
Not all of the roughly 65 scripted series bumped off prime time by the writers' strike will come back this year.
With dramas and single-camera comedies unlikely to get more than six weeks on the air from the time they return until the end of the broadcast season in late May, network programmers have some tough choices to make.
Hits like "CSI," "House" and "Grey's Anatomy," are "no-brainers" to bring back this spring, one network executive told Reuters.
Lower-rated shows whose futures already were in doubt will either be placed on hold for possible relaunch in the future or be canceled altogether, in part because networks lack the time to build up marketing campaigns for them, he said.
Scripted series that come back will share the airwaves with many of the reality TV and game shows that have flooded the networks in recent weeks as strike-proof programming.
There is little for networks and studios to do until the strike actually ends, but planning which shows should return and how to schedule them is well under way.
"Those conversations are happening," one insider said.
The strike also has cut into networks' winter-spring development cycle for new shows, when dozens of "pilot" episodes of potential prime-time offerings for the fall are traditionally put into production.
Top executives from the corporate parents of NBC, ABC and Fox have already said they plan to order far fewer pilots this year. Instead, networks will choose more new shows from scripts or video presentations, and that is one change that may carry into future years as networks search for ways to curb costs.