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No time for making new ‘Friends’ at NBC?

Times Staff Writer

Call it a reality check for Hollywood’s writers.

NBC’s recent decision to mainly devote the first hour of its nightly prime time to low-cost “unscripted” shows is rattling TV scribes already alarmed by the shrinking number of network comedies requiring their services.

“It’s absolutely more bad news for scripted television writers like me,” said Tim O'Donnell, whose credits include “Clueless.""It just eliminates the shelf space available for networks to put on what I pitch.”

NBC has been under pressure from corporate parent General Electric Co. to reverse its profit slide and avoid a repeat of its fourth-place finish last season. NBC is relying on reality and game shows in its first prime-time hour as it faces escalating costs in scripted television.

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But executives say they are responding to audiences’ desires, stressing that they remain committed to scripted shows as evidenced by the hits “The Office” and “My Name Is Earl.”

“Viewers are voicing a preference for unscripted choices in the 8 p.m. hour, but that doesn’t lessen NBC’s commitment throughout the rest of prime time to the most ambitious and accomplished scripted programming on television,” NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said.

Still, NBC’s move is especially disheartening for writers who recall the 8 o'clock hour as the launching pad for some of the industry’s most successful and celebrated situation comedies, including NBC blockbusters “Friends” and “The Cosby Show.”

“It’s a huge development,” said Daniel Petrie Jr., former president of the Writers Guild of America, West. “It gives a sense of surrender on the part of one of the largest and most historical networks.”

Since “Survivor” debuted on CBS in 2000, reality TV has emerged from a sideshow novelty to a network cornerstone.

Although there are fewer unscripted shows on the air today than there were two years ago, such programs occupy about 15 hours of prime time. By contrast, sitcoms take up about 10 hours of the 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. period, nearly half the airtime they had in 2004.

So-called unscripted shows such as Fox’s “American Idol,” ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” “Survivor” and NBC’s hit game show “Deal or No Deal” have dominated the 8 p.m. hour.

Unscripted shows generally have a limited shelf life and don’t generate the long-term revenue in repeats that a successful sitcom does. But audiences clearly like them.

They also are substantially cheaper to make. The cost of a drama series typically ranges from $2.3 million to $2.7 million an episode, compared with $700,000 to $1.25 million for reality shows.

“The costs of production have gone up faster than ad revenue, and that’s contributed enormous pressure on the networks to keep their programming costs in line,” said Larry Gerbrandt, senior vice president of Nielsen Analytics.

Although they are billed as unscripted productions, reality shows use writers to craft story lines and even some dialogue to build drama.

But the pay isn’t as good, and many shows aren’t covered by guild contracts. David Rupel, who has worked as a story editor and producer on “Big Brother” and other reality shows, recently switched to writing for soap operas so he could get union benefits such as health insurance.

“There are plenty of opportunities for writers in reality TV. It’s just a matter of getting the networks and the studios to acknowledge that writers exist,” he said.

A tightening in network sitcom jobs also has TV writers looking elsewhere. New cable and digital channels are creating opportunities. And one-hour dramas are enjoying a resurgence thanks to the success of such hits as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Lost” and “Heroes.”

“If you’re a storyteller, then you better learn how to tell the story that the people are watching and that the networks are putting on the air,” said O'Donnell, who recently wrote his first one-hour pilot.

TV genres are often cyclical, with comedies and dramas going in and out of vogue. Dean Valentine, a former head of Disney’s television unit and president of UPN, believes the networks’ current infatuation with reality will fade.

But a resurgence of sitcoms is unlikely, he contends, because younger audiences prefer short, interactive entertainment found on websites such as YouTube.

“I think writers have a lot of reason to be anxious,” he added. “The world they’ve been living and writing in no longer exists. The generic sitcom that has been a staple of TV for 30 to 40 years is not coming back.”

But David Goodman, executive producer of Fox’s hit series “Family Guy,” said audiences had not tired of sitcoms, only weak shows.

“I don’t want to insult my colleagues, but the reason people didn’t watch ‘Joey’ wasn’t because they didn’t want to watch comedy,” Goodman said, referring to the short-lived “Friends” spinoff.

“Once somebody develops another ‘Seinfeld'-type show, people will tune in again.”

With Hollywood labor tensions growing, even more unscripted shows could be debuting soon. One key labor dispute is about the organizing of reality show writers and producers. Over the summer, a dozen writers on the CW’s “America’s Next Top Model” went on strike.

“This is a genre that is not going away,” WGA West President Patric Verrone said. “That validates why we should continue to be aggressive in our efforts to get contracts for the writers who work on these shows.”

With writers expected to make reality shows a major contract issue next year, studios are putting together contingency plans for a possible strike.

Chief among them: developing more reality shows.

richard.verrier@latimes.com


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