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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - U.S. television viewers looking to settle back into such favorite series as "Desperate Housewives," "CSI" and "The Office" will be in for a rude awakening after the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Fresh episodes of those shows and many others will be replaced by a glut of reality programs and reruns headed to the major networks in January as the Hollywood writers strike begins to affect prime time after first hitting late-night TV.
The writers' walkout, now in its sixth week with no settlement in sight, has halted production on 50 to 60 scripted comedies and dramas, and the supply of new episodes is about to run dry. Broadcasters are getting through December with traditional Christmas-season specials, TV movies and sports.
The labor clash between major studios and writers could hardly come at a worse time for networks. Prime-time ratings are already down sharply this season compared to a year ago.
"The networks are really going to feel the heat when the new year begins," said Marc Berman, senior editor for the trade publication Media Week. "And it's going to be a completely different experience for the viewer."
The new wave of reality TV shows includes weekend warrior contest "American Gladiators" from NBC, philanthropic competition "Oprah's Big Give" on ABC; and two Fox entries -- the female-domination experiment "When Women Rule the World," and "The Moment of Truth," which hooks contestants to a lie detector and challenges them to answer personal questions.
Network executives say some of these shows were planned before the strike, which began on November 5. But many were fast-tracked in anticipation of a protracted labor dispute.
CBS, for example, has ordered a first-ever winter edition of its summer reality staple "Big Brother" to run three nights a week starting in February.
"Survivor," the CBS castaway competition that helped ignite the reality craze in 2000, returns for a 16th installment along with last summer's Drew Carey-hosted quiz show, "Power of 10."
CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonves told an investor conference last week that ratings for his network would likely fall this winter. But because reality shows are cheap to make, he added that "costs will be down considerably."
CBS also is relying on reruns of its biggest scripted hits, notably detective shows like "CSI," "Cold Case" and "Criminal Minds" that manage to draw higher ratings in repeats than more highly serialized dramas on other networks.
NBC has plenty of reality fare on tap too, including the fatherhood challenge "My Dad is Better than Your Dad," a celebrity edition of Donald Trump's "The Apprentice," and "Baby Borrowers," a British import that simulates the rigors of parenthood for five teen-age couples.
Fox seems best positioned to weather the strike thanks mostly to the annual return of its smash hit talent contest "American Idol," which debuts its seventh season in January.
Fox also has several new scripted shows it plans to launch in early 2008, including the highly anticipated sci-fi thriller "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," a spinoff of the blockbuster movie series that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger.
ABC, a unit of the Walt Disney Co., still has about eight episodes of its hit drama "Lost" to bring back starting in February. Its reality offerings include a new installment of "Dancing with the Stars," plus two new dance contests and the return of "The Bachelor," "Supernanny" and "Wife Swap."