LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hollywood's television pilot season, when networks develop and test most new programs, is in a tailspin with writers on strike putting billions of advertising dollars at risk.
The disruption of the pilot season, which runs from January through April, would shake up the $9 billion "upfront" market that begins in May when advertisers pay to book commercial time long in advance of a broadcast.
Some experts believe the very time frame of the broadcast season as a whole, which has traditionally run from September to May, may now be relegated to entertainment history.
"This strike is certainly going to cause a shift. If it isn't resolved by February 1, it will rule out many pilots," said Jeff Hermanson, assistant executive director of the Writers Guild of America (WGA).
The seven-week-old strike by some 10,500 WGA members against Hollywood studios has brought production to a halt on most all network prime-time comedies and dramas.
With the supply of fresh episodes about to run out, broadcasters plan to load up their programming schedules with a wave of strike-proof reality shows, game shows and reruns of popular series starting in January.
About 300 TV writers are planning to sign a letter urging studios to quickly return to negotiations or reach interim agreements to save 2008's pilot season, Hermanson said.
ABC, owned by Walt Disney Co, CBS Corp, News Corp's Fox and NBC, operated by General Electric, all declined comment.
Typically, a pilot episode can cost around $5 million to make, and the networks generally shoot 20 to 25 pilots from which they choose most of their new programs for the subsequent TV season that usually starts in September.
Industry sources said the networks have only a few scripted programs in development and even fewer pilots shot. Some fear the 2008-2009 TV season may be scuttled altogether if the strike lasts into February or that the upfronts -- during which networks sell roughly 85 percent of their annual commercial inventory -- will be pushed to June or July.
NBC recently took the rare step of giving advertisers cash back for shortfalls in prime-time viewers and said it was working to come up with new ways for advertisers to market products.
While most networks have clung to a September-to-May TV season, some experts believe the strike may expedite a shift. Networks have increasingly launched new shows year-round including in summer, the traditional time for reruns.
"If everything got resolved by early January, we could pull the pilots together," one network executive said. "But if not, it might give the industry the freedom to try new things and work from a new paradigm, like year-round development."
Shari Anne Brill, director of programming for media buying agency Carat USA, said year-round development helps networks better manage September schedules crowded with new shows.
Another option is for the networks to bring back returning programs in September and introduce new shows in January 2009.
Kathy Sharpe, chief executive of digital marketing agency Sharpe Partners, said she could envision networks experimenting online. "You can imagine having a pilot viewed on the Internet to see if it should get picked up at all," she said.
But that brings up another issue: the main sticking point in the WGA strike is the question of how writers should be paid for work distributed online. As they say in TV: stay tuned.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte, Steve Gorman and Howard Goller