Written by: Ron Bricker
With negotiations between the Writer’s Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers at a standstill, it’s becoming more and more likely that the writers' strike will affect the television season. For the viewers, this means an influx of game shows and “original” reality programming after the new year, when most of the scripted shows will run out of new episodes. But if the broadcast networks think outside the box, they may be able to turn strike programming to their advantage. Here are just a few ideas of things the networks could do to avoid the endless glut of Survivor and Deal or No Deal copycats we’re being promised come January:
By replacing one R-word with another, networks could turn something they typically dread into a programming gimmick: while “reruns” suck, “retro” could be cool and interesting. Each night could showcase programming from a different year. To complete the effect, the networks could feature only the advertisements that were actually running during the featured year. (Wouldn’t it be nice to see that “Where’s the beef?” ad on television again?) Baby Boomers would love seeing the shows that were popular during the 60s and 70s, and Generation X and Y-ers could revel in 80s nostalgia. In addition to the more popular shows, networks could air those cult classics (or miserable failures) the retro-themed cable networks rarely show: The Ugliest Girl in Town, Cop Rock, and Small Wonder seem like good possibilities. If all this is sounding a little too TV Land for you, consider this: on CBS on Saturday nights in 1973, viewers were treated to All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show. Whatever you think of retro, it sounds a lot better than Cavemen.
Gone are the days when cable competed with the broadcast networks for viewers. Today, most cable networks are owned by the same companies that own the broadcast networks. Disney owns ABC, ABC Family, ESPN, and the Disney Channel. Viacom owns Comedy Central, Spike, Nickelodeon, and MTV. NBC Universal owns NBC, USA, SciFi, and Bravo. Regardless, broadcast networks still garner a larger, more diverse audience than cable networks. Now that more cable networks are featuring original scripted programming, the broadcast networks could use the strike as an opportunity to bring their sister networks’ series to a larger audience. This strategy isn’t unheard of: ABC’s repeat airings on Friday nights helped turn Kyle XY and Greek into two of ABC Family’s highest rated shows.
Boosting Borderline Shows
One potential pitfall of the strike is the effect it could have on the so-called “bubble” shows: shows already in danger of cancellation could be derailed completely by extended periods without new episodes. But instead of using the strike as an excuse to put these shows out to pasture, the networks could use it as an opportunity to raise the profiles of these shows: mass promotion, more coveted time slots, and re-airings of previous episodes. Who cares if the shows aren’t technically new? When programming is scarce, novelty is key. This would be a perfect strategy for Friday Night Lights: critically acclaimed since its debut last season, the show has struggled to find an audience and is now languishing away on (ironically enough) Friday nights. But give the show some mass promotion and a nice Dancing with the Stars lead in, maybe it could gain some viewers that would stick around even after the writer’s strike. And if it doesn’t work, at least the fans can’t claim that the network treated the show unfairly.
Going to the Movies
Why don’t people watch movies on television anymore? The proliferation of DVDs? The incessant commercials? The fact that every movie with higher than a G-rating is edited within an inch of its life? But maybe by turning movie night into a major television event, people might actually go back to watching movies on television. Instead of interrupting the movie every 10-15 minutes for commercials, air it with “limited commercial interruptions” every 45 minutes to an hour—long enough to allow people to get into the story, but short enough that they won’t have to run to the bathroom during the best scene. Air seasonally appropriate films, and promote the heck out of them: war movies around Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day, holiday films between Thanksgiving and Christmas, school-themed movies in early September. Networks could even air classic films we rarely see outside of TMC: instead of Old School, they could air Goodbye, Mr. Chips. And, although the FCC will probably have a conniption at the very thought of it, maybe the networks shouldn’t insult their viewers’ intelligence by editing everything to death. If parents are worried about their six-year-olds hearing a few dirty words or seeing sexually suggestive situations, maybe they should monitor what their children watch rather than having the television act as an electronic babysitter. Just a thought.
However the networks set up their schedules during the strike, they will not reach the highs they achieve with their original programming. But television has become an integral part of the lives of millions of people, and the lack of new scripted shows won’t keep people from watching. So instead of giving up, the networks should try to use the strike to their advantage. And maybe when people are busy enjoying a night of programming from 1988 or watching a movie they haven’t seen in a long time, they’ll forget—or at least forgive—the fact that they won’t be able to see new episodes of Grey’s Anatomy until next season.