Viewers turn to Web as strike lingers

The impasse between the WGA and studios opens opportunities for Web content providers

As the Writers Guild of America (WGA) enters its third week of striking against the networks and studios of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the walkout has incited melodrama worthy of a Daytime Emmy.

Now the very real-life consequences of the strike are starting to emerge, as well. With popular series, including The Office, Desperate Housewives, and 24, already on indefinite hiatus, both the WGA and the AMPTP are under pressure to make amends before once-devout viewers find other entertainment options.

The strike's biggest losers, though, "are the witty, creative new shows that writers [love] and want to see developed," says Jonathan Wilcox, adjunct professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

New shows such as Back to You and The Big Bang Theory - ones that "the writers claim to fight for in the first place" - will be among "the first real casualties of this whole thing," Wilcox explains.

Abruptly taken off the air mid-season, a new series that is still struggling to establish itself will lose all momentum, and likely not return post-strike. However, it's not the audiences who will suffer.

"The trump card in this is that the viewers will find other things they can watch," adds Wilcox. Some trendspotters and industry analysts speculate those "other things" will include an uptick in online viewership.

"The feeling is, there may be a real upside for Web-based content creators," says Andy Morris, partner and principal at the Morris & King Company.

Though behavior obviously differs depending on demographics, Morris notes that younger consumers "are already snacking on" alternative media on a regular basis. For them, incorporating less traditional TV and more streaming video into their viewing diets would not be much of a stretch. Even middle-aged, mainstream TV watchers, frustrated with strike-forced reruns, may eventually look to the Internet for stand-in viewing options, Morris says.

"It's happening, anyway," says Kurt Patat, senior communications manager at AOL Entertainment. Even before the strike, he says, "most studios [were] working with us " on Web-exclusive, TV-quality programs like Unscripted, a series in which the co-stars of a soon-to-be-released movie answer user-submitted questions in a laid-back studio setting. Similar, non-unionized programs now run on less-omnipresent online networks including ManiaTV.com, SuperDeluxe.com, and NGTV.com, among others.

Like late-night talk shows, these Web-based series exist not only to entertain, but also to serve as key film-promotional vehicles. If the WGA strike forces late-night into a long-term holding pattern, Patat says, "the studios will [probably] just work with us even more. There are lots of upcoming releases that need to be promoted."

Still, the Internet alone can't replace the publicity impact of Letterman or Leno, or the format and content of mainstream, scripted TV. Nor can it take the place of advertisers' $64 billion in annual television budgets, says Jack Myers, publisher of media analysis site JackMyers.com.

Should the walkout extend past January, Myers says, the entire prime-time TV season will essentially be wiped out. That's "a dangerous scenario" for everyone in the TV business, both on the network and the ad side, he says. "It truly threatens the underpinnings of the television economy."

Still, certain industry executives feel this strike isn't really that bad.

In a recent earnings call, for example, News Corporation president Peter Chernin told investors the strike was actually a positive for Fox, as it would allow the network to slash pricey pilot-development costs while continuing to provide plenty of new, less expensive reality programming (which doesn't fall under WGA auspices).

Fox points out the painfully obvious: WGA writers can blog and leverage YouTube; they can picket and rally, and distribute hundreds of thousands of leaflets explaining that Guild members "write your favorite sitcoms, dramas, late-night shows, soap operas, movies, and more."

But in the end, it may not matter to viewers. Because, WGA strike or not, the season seven premiere of ratings powerhouse American Idol is on for January 15.

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