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Reruns and cheapo fare will rule -- as if it’s July

Acouple of months back, this column predicted that if a writers strike did come to pass, the networks would soon turn to two Rs: reality and repeats.

Guess what? Soon is here.

Talks between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers broke down again late Friday, leaving no end in sight for the 5-week-old writers strike.

Viewers have already seen the strike’s effect on late-night shows -- most of which have been in repeat mode since Nov. 5 -- but when the typically rerun-heavy holiday month of December ends, they’ll start seeing major disruptions in prime time as well. The supply of scripted shows has run out on such popular fare as “Heroes,” “Private Practice” and many others that premiered in September. So a few weeks after Christmas, flat screens across the land will start filling with such quality fare as “American Gladiators,” “Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann” and “Power of 10.”

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As one media buyer told this column last week, it’s going to look a lot more like July, when reruns and cheapo unscripted stuff typically rule, than January.

The strike always threatened to roil midseason programming, and now it’s poised to cause dismay and dyspepsia in both broadcasters and viewers -- everyone except for Fox, of course, whose behemoth “American Idol” is set to return Jan. 15.

Other networks, which are used to the “Idol” problem, are now adjusting to the fact that they’re going to have to make do for a long while with a sharply diminished arsenal of fresh scripted shows.

A few debuts will crop up here and there, such as Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” (its two-night premiere starts Jan. 13), NBC’s “Lipstick Jungle” (Feb. 7) and ABC’s “Cashmere Mafia” (no premiere date announced yet). And then there’s a lucky case like CW’s sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris,” which wrapped its season of 22 episodes early, leaving an enviable supply of 12 episodes still unaired.

But for the most part, schedulers are being forced to make like a jazz combo and improvise, not just for midseason but also for next fall. The pilot season, when new programs are traditionally developed and tested, will have to be scuttled if the strike isn’t settled by mid-February at the latest, network execs agree. New York’s so-called upfront market, where the bulk of ad time is sold starting in May, might be threatened too.

And the industry faces questions about the fate of next month’s Golden Globes on NBC, as well as February’s Oscar telecast on ABC, if the Guild does not grant waivers that would presumably keep pickets away from the ceremonies.

A long strike would be “not only truncating the current season but significantly shifting the next one as well,” said John Rash, senior vice president at ad firm Campbell Mithun.

What’s making the networks especially nervous are this fall’s ratings, which were dismal even without the strike. In the most recent “sweeps” period, which ended Nov. 28, every network except Fox logged dizzying declines among the critical demographic of viewers ages 18 to 49 compared with the year-earlier period, according to Nielsen Media Research. Third-place NBC shed 13% as heavily promoted entries such as “Bionic Woman” sputtered. (First-place ABC shed 10% in that demographic, while runner-up CBS was down 8%. Fox was fourth but gained 3%.)

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And the bad news keeps coming. On Thursday, new episodes of two tent-pole dramas -- ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and NBC’s publicity-drenched 300th episode of “ER” -- dipped to the series’ lowest-ever ratings in the 18 to 49 demographic.

True, some of the slippage may have to do with the fact that networks are hanging tight with new shows that normally would have gotten the ax after a few outings, such as CBS’ soap “Cane” and NBC’s time-travel drama “Journeyman.” Once the strike began, execs figured there was no point dipping into the stockpile of midseason replacements any sooner than absolutely necessary.

But that’s not easing broadcaster anxieties over what to do this winter.

“We’re kind of in the same boat everyone else is in,” said one network executive who was granted anonymity to discuss an uncomfortable topic some rivals wouldn’t broach even under “deep background” reporting rules. “You do the best you can. We’re all fighting the same battle.”

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So far, NBC has the most aggressive midseason war plan, based on the schedule it proffered last week. The network’s strategy is to limit repeats as much as possible by loading up on game and reality shows. “Deal or No Deal” will kick off Mondays and Wednesdays. Tuesdays will have a two-hour block of the weight-loss contest “The Biggest Loser.” And on Mondays it’ll take a whack at reviving that old staple of down-market syndication, “American Gladiators,” with wrestler Hulk Hogan.

And to think: People once thought Brandon Tartikoff was tarting up NBC by buying “The A-Team.”

NBC will also have some fresh scripted material for the first quarter of 2008 -- a total of 85 hours, according to network executives. “Law & Order” will start its 18th season Jan. 2, and “Medium” will begin its fourth the next week. And because of accelerated production, “Friday Night Lights” and “Las Vegas” will be able to stay in new episodes longer than most dramas.

Vince Manze, NBC’s president of program planning, scheduling and strategy, said to me, “We’re coming out of the blocks right on Jan. 1 with original programming.”

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The thinking is much more conservative at CBS, where execs will try sticking with encores of repeat-friendly procedurals such as “NCIS” and the “CSI” franchise.

The network will have some originals too, but it’s mostly back-of-the-pantry stuff. “Jericho,” last year’s flameout drama, will return for a second season in February, and the struggling sitcom “The New Adventures of Old Christine” is headed back as well. Drew Carey’s hit summertime game “Power of 10" returns Jan. 2, but those additional episodes were ordered pre-strike.

Beyond that, CBS will hang its hopes on the 16th edition of “Survivor” (Feb. 7) and the first-ever winter outing for “Big Brother” (Feb. 12), which it can air several times a week.

The biggest question mark is ABC, which as of Friday hadn’t announced a midseason schedule and was chary even with whispered speculation. Its 8-10 p.m. Tuesday block is unaccounted for, with “Dancing With the Stars” not slated to return till March.

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The spinoff “Dance War,” with “Dancing With the Stars” judges Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba, is slated for Mondays starting Jan. 7. Production on the “Sex and the City"-style “Cashmere Mafia” was hampered by the strike, reportedly yielding just seven completed episodes, although insiders insist the series will bow in January regardless.

It’s a subject of much industry debate what ABC will decide to do with the half-season of “Lost” that’s presumably been finished -- Fox put the similarly serialized “24" on hold until it could complete more episodes. However, the network is expected to have 13 episodes of writer-producer Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim’s quirky legal drama “Eli Stone.”

If all this is sounding grim, well, there’s always the chance that one of the networks’ new game shows or midseason replacements could somehow defy the odds and pop big.

Sure. Just like there’s a chance the strike could be solved in top-secret Christmas Eve talks, and that Sanjaya could return to claim his rightful throne on “American Idol.”

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scott.collins@latimes.com


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