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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As Hollywood recovers from a tumultuous writers strike that ended in February, U.S. television networks are bracing for a possible actors walkout that could delay the upcoming fall TV season.
Jitters over renewed labor unrest have mounted in recent days as contract talks between the Screen Actors Guild and the major film and TV studios have grown increasingly rancorous with little or no sign that a settlement is near.
The three-year labor pact covering film and prime-time TV work for 120,000 SAG members is due to expire in two weeks.
SAG leaders triggered an outcry from the studios late last week by suggesting a deal was unlikely to be reached by the June 30 deadline and saying they were considering whether to seek permission of rank-and-file members to call a strike.
The talks, which began in April, have bogged down on some of the same issues that led to a work stoppage by screenwriters earlier this year, including payments earned by union talent from DVD sales and work created for the Internet.
The writers strike brought production on most scripted TV series to a halt, idled thousands of workers and forced networks to replace sidelined programs with a glut of reruns and reality shows. TV ratings already in a slump sagged further. One estimate put the total cost to the Los Angeles-area economy at $3 billion.
With so much at stake, studio and network bosses are said to be preparing strike contingencies.
The studios' bargaining agent, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, acknowledged last week that continued labor uncertainty has curtailed movie production and disrupted pilot development for new TV series.
Moreover, the networks are quietly considering a postponement of the traditional September launch of the next TV season as a "last resort" should a strike materialize, said Nellie Andreeva, who covers TV for The Hollywood Reporter.
"We have talked to executives (and) privately, they say, 'That's a possibility we're looking at,"' Andreeva said.
Television was especially hard hit by the 100-day writers strike, and when the TV season ended last month, some shows stayed in production or started up again after a short break rather than taking off for their customary summer hiatus.
The altered production cycle could help the networks soften the blow of a potential actors strike.
About half of all prime-time dramas and sitcoms are now shooting for the fall, allowing those shows to stockpile a handful of new episodes in the event of a work stoppage, said one studio insider who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Andreeva said about two dozen shows will have two or three original episodes ready in time for a strike, including "Heroes," "House," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "ER" and "My Name is Earl." Others, including "Grey's Anatomy," "Desperate Housewives" and "The Office," will not, she said.
Ironically, the Fox hit "24," which missed an entire season due to the writers strike, appears to be one of the shows best situated to survive a new work stoppage unscathed.
With several episodes already shot before the writers walked off the job last year and producers slated to keep filming through October, the spy thriller seems likely to get all two dozen episodes done in time for the show's scheduled return in January 2009.
But the studio source insisted the reason for summer TV production has more to do with an eagerness to return to work than a deliberate strike-preparation strategy.
"There's a hunger on the part of writers, actors and studios to start making shows again," he said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to people who have just had four months off to take another three months just because of the time of year."
Many in Hollywood see an actors strike as relatively improbable given the leftover fatigue from the writers' work stoppage. Some question whether SAG could even muster the 75 percent majority needed from members in a strike authorization vote, a process that would probably take three weeks.
The outcome of talks between SAG and the studios have become further muddied by a vitriolic battle between SAG and its estranged sister union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
AFTRA struck its own deal with the studios last month, and assuming its 70,000 members ratify their TV contract, a handful of shows produced under that labor deal, including "Til Death" and "Rules of Engagement," could continue during a SAG strike.
But it remains to be seen whether AFTRA members, many of whom also belong to SAG, would cross picket lines.
The studios and some union members have accused SAG of dragging its feet at the bargaining table while campaigning to defeat the AFTRA settlement. SAG has urged its 40,000 members with dual membership to reject that deal in a ratification vote that comes to a close on July 8, saying its own negotiating clout would otherwise be undermined by the AFTRA accord.
The last time the U.S. TV season was delayed by a contract dispute was when Hollywood writers walked off the job in 1988.