Writers’ strike effects a mixed bag in Canada

CBC's schedule is unscathed. Elsewhere, stockpiled series are expected to last until the end of the year, after which reality and game shows will take over.

Hollywood screenwriters walked off the job on Monday after talks with producers failed to reach agreement on compensation for work repurposed for new media.

In Canada, broadcasters are facing endless repeats, a slide in ratings and a backlash by viewers as the strike goes on, say industry watchers – although CTV and CanWest are taking steps to soften the blow.

Only the CBC, which has little American fare on its schedule and is not tied to a US supplier for its primetime fare, is likely to emerge unscathed from the current labour strife down south. And it’s too early to tell how a call yesterday to members of the Writers Guild of Canada to honour the strike ‘by a sister guild’ may affect the Ceeb.

CTV is feeling an immediate pinch with the sudden absence of night talkers like Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, which have already gone dark for lack of gag writers. NBC has sent Leno and Conan into repeats, so the CTV-owned A-Channels have done the same.

‘They are at the mercy of the US networks. If they run repeats, we will run repeats,’ says Florence Ng, VP of broadcast investments at Toronto-based media buyer Zenith Optimedia.

The networks here can tweak at the margins, however. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, also now in re-runs, has been moved by CTV to 12:30 am, Monday to Fridays. In its place, the net is bringing TMZ, its daily entertainment magazine show, one hour forward from 1 am to midnight nightly.

CTV and Global should face little disruption through November sweeps and into December, when traditional Christmas programming kicks in, because the American networks have stockpiled episodes of popular dramas and comedies to take them comfortably to the end of the year.

The real question is how US primetime schedules, and the Canadian skeds tied to them, will fare in January and afterwards if the writers are still out. CTV will be happy it acquired the Super Bowl to brighten its mid-season game plan. The net will also have the benefit of American Idol, which Fox may extend to three nights, and Extreme Makeover. Global will have Survivor, which CBS may bring back earlier than planned.

Whether Canadian TV viewers want them or not, they’re likely to watch more reality series and game shows, such as ABC’s Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann, a spin-off from Dancing with the Stars, and CBS’s Regis Philbin-hosted Million Dollar Password. More reality and game shows better the odds that CTV and Global might snag the next Survivor or American Idol – game-changers that transform their schedules and appeal to advertisers. Alternatively, the US networks may resurrect news magazine shows like NBC’s Dateline.

There’s also the question of how the strike may affect the rollout of popular mid-season dramas like 24, seen here on Global, and Lost, on CTV. The Canadian nets will be affected if Fox and ABC delay the launches of the shows, or run whatever episodes were shot before the strike started and then go into hiatus.

Barb Williams, SVP of programming and production for CanWest MediaWorks, remains sanguine for now. She argues that, just as the US networks have brought the Canadians a problem with the writers’ strike, they will eventually produce solutions.

CTV and CanWest MediaWorks will also be able to dip into their libraries if the strike drags on. ‘We didn’t get into the E! business with this idea in mind, but it’s in our deck of cards,’ says Williams of plans to use TV shows from the US-based E! network’s catalogue for filler. Like her fellow Canadian broadcasters, the mantra is business as usual.

CTV spokesman Scott Henderson says his network can draw on programming from sister specialty channels like Discovery, Comedy Network and MuchMusic. ‘CTV has always been able to air [US] cable shows like Nip/Tuck and The Sopranos,’ and could migrate such fare from its Canadian specialty services.

Any way you cut it, Canadians will need to get used to TV repeats, or shift to DVDs or the Internet for diversion, should the strike carry on into 2008. ‘Our viewers want to continue to get the shows that they are enjoying. We’re not trying to disrupt anything for our viewers, unless we have to,’ Williams says of the need to air re-runs for continuity.

If anything, it’s an open question whether the Canadians’ US suppliers would allow them to forego repeats of popular American shows for alternative programming. ‘There will have to be conversations about that, as we see how things unfold,’ says Williams. ‘No one contemplated in the original deals any high volume of repeats.’

From Playback Daily