Ripples From Another American Crisis

The effect of the ongoing Hollywood writers strike will only grow, as HOT and Yes run out of new episodes to air.

The most conspicuous expression of the Hollywood Writers Guild strike in Israel, the absence of new late-night programs hosted by Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien on the Yes satellite channel, has been resolved. Those programs have returned to the air. But those developments do not portend an improvement in the broadcasting schedule on the Yes satellite and HOT cable premium channels. Quite the opposite - no end is in sight for the strike. Even if the strike is over as soon as possible, immediately after the Christmas and New Year holidays - January 2 - it will take time to produce new episodes of American series, as work on those series has come to a halt.

The second season of "Prison Break" on the Yes Stars channel closely followed its season debut in the United States, because of Yes's policy of quickly airing programs that are popular on download sites. But "Prison Break" was the first local victim of the strike when it went off the air last week. "Heroes" will soon vanish from local listings as well, though it too appeared locally right on the heels of the American broadcast. New episodes of "Heroes" are simply running out. In mid-January, the series will go off the air for an undetermined period of time.

The broadcast schedules of "Lost" and "24," in which the element of suspense between episodes is crucial, also will be disrupted. These series, which air on HOT and are also popular downloads, run a high risk of losing viewers to the strike because of storylines that create tension between seasons. (The fact that "24" star Kiefer Sutherland is currently serving a prison term also contributes little to the program's image.)

Claire Elbaz, head of acquisitions for the Xtra HOT premium channel, where those programs are aired, says that the channel does not generally run the risk of mounting suspense series that it will be forced to cease broadcasting midseason. On the other hand, series like "Brothers and Sisters," which has ceased production while its stars demonstrate alongside writers, may be broadcast on Xtra HOT because the episodes do not require immediate continuous viewing. The 19 out of 24 episodes of "Men in Trees" that completed production will similarly appear on Xtra. There is a better chance that the strike will end and the last five episodes will complete production by the time the first 19 are aired.

It appears that contemporary American series will completely vanish from local premium channels in January, because those channels will not be airing slated series. Work on all American comedies has come to a grinding halt, because writers work on those programs while they are filming. Writers wait in the wings while those shows are being filmed before a live audience, and immediately rewrite segments of script that do not produce the desired laughter. That cannot happen while they are on strike.

Dramas are a different story. Scripts are presented at the outset and rewritten later. Work could continue on those scripts, but creators of those programs, who in most cases also appear in the credits as writers, identify with their colleagues' plight and are refusing to cross the picket lines created by their guild. Work on most of those dramas will soon cease entirely.

Danna Stern, head of acquisitions for Yes, says that nearly all the new seasons of series slated to air on Yes Stars, like "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy" and its spin-off "Private Practice," "Pushing Daisies," and "Samantha Who?" a new comedy starring Christina Applegate, will not be broadcast. For now, those series have produced about nine to 11 episodes each.

"If the strike ends soon," says Stern, "It will be possible to postpone slightly the initial broadcast date and still broadcast the series continuously, because by the time we finish broadcasting the episodes we have, they will have time to produce the new ones. If not, we will have to consider putting something else in the slot. If the strike lasts longer [some say it will last until summer], there may be gaps that are too big to bridge, because it takes an average of two to three weeks to produce episodes of American comedies and four to six weeks to produce dramas.

"All this, of course, is conditional upon the writers writing at home during the strike. Most of them claim they are not writing, but because they are paid only when they present a script, the assumption is that they are writing during the strike."

As Yes and American listings already reflect, a plethora of reality programs, like "The Bachelor," "Survivor," "The Amazing Race" and "The Big Loser," may replace slated content. Xtra HOT will air talk shows like "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and "David Letterman," which found a way to pay their writers (some payment came out of the hosts' own deep pockets).

"The advantage of a reality show is that it is short," Stern says. "If the strike suddenly ends, we won't have to wait months to launch the new content acquired in the new acquisitions season."

The same is true of British series, which are produced in relatively few episodes. They, too, are going on the air now on Yes Stars premium channels. The winning British "The Secret Diary of a Call Girl," which was purchased this week not as a format but in its original version, to be aired by Showtime, will run here in February.

American series to be launched by Yes regardless of the strike include those produced for the summer season, like "Burn Notice," "The Riches" and "The Tudors." HOT programs that were similarly unaffected because they were aired in the summer season include "Californication," "Damages," "Tell Me You Love Me" and "Gossip Girl," and they will air locally as scheduled.

Meanwhile, both acquisition departments hold out the hope that Christmas will bring them a longed-for present: the end of the strike.