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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Get with the programme

My feature from today's Irish Examiner
The Hollywood writers strike may have ended two months ago, but it’s only now that television schedules are returning to something approaching normal. The 100-day strike by the 12,000 members of the Writers Guild of America brought Tinseltown to its knees last winter, halting most, if not all, TV and film productions, and resulting in a total loss of anything between E1.5 and E2 billion to the industry.

By the end of this week, however, most of the biggest shows on television will have returned to US screens, and fans in Ireland can expect to see new episodes of the likes of Lost, Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty almost immediately after.

It’s taken some six weeks for the industry to get back to work, but there’s no doubt that the television landscape has been altered dramatically by the strike. The most noticeable consequence is that most of biggest shows will have seen their current seasons seriously truncated by as many as 6-7 episodes.
All the indications are that the shortfall in the current seasons won’t be made up later in the year. Instead, most shows will compress storylines into the few remaining episodes in the current seasons, and will then resume a normal scheduled season in the autumn (presuming, of course, that they are renewed by the networks).

The biggest casualty of the strike has been the real-time action thriller 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland. Eight episodes of its seventh season were filmed before the picket began, but the new series’ debut has been pushed back until January 2009 to allow the show to run for 24 consecutive weeks without interruption (a two hour TV movie is reported to be in the works to keep fans happy in the interim).

The writers strike has also been a mixed blessing for some freshman shows that started last autumn. On the one hand, the hiatus gave the networks the perfect excuse to kill off struggling or critically panned shows such as Bionic Woman (starring former EastEnder Michelle Ryan) and the witless Sex and the City clone Cashmere Mafia.

On the other hand, other newbies like Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money, and Chuck have been granted a stay of execution, and will return for new full seasons in the autumn (though there will be no new episodes to finish off their current runs).

Likewise, Heroes, a smash hit in its first series last year, went into serious decline during its 11-episode second season (which started on BBC2 lastThursday night), but it will return for a third ‘volume’ in September, after a much-needed re-boot.

So, what can fans expect for the remainder of the current seasons of their favourite shows?
Desperate Housewives aired 10 episodes of its fourth season before the strike, and the series resumed here in Ireland on RTE 2 last week for six more episodes to conclude the season (the finale of which promises to be a shocker that changes the show forever).

Elsewhere, Grey’s Anatomy and Lost return to US TV screens lastThursday for five episodes each. The entire fourth season of Grey’s will begin on RTE 2 in July. Lost already had a shortened season of 16 episodes (as will the final two seasons), but its current series has now been chopped even further to 13 broadcasts of frantically compressed storylines. It returned to RTE last night.

Ugly Betty will round out its current season with five more episodes, which kicked off on RTE 2 last Thursday, before returning with a full season in September. Likewise, Brothers and Sisters returned last Sunday in the US with the first of four new episodes, though RTE, which airs the show here, is pretty behind the US, so it will remain unaffected by the strike delay.

The quirky medical comedy Scrubs returned on April 10 in America for four more episodes to complete what was supposed to be its final season. However, during the strike, a deal was rumoured to have been struck that will see the show switch to a new network for an eighth season. RTE has yet to schedule its return.

On that note, medical drama ER will have five new post-strike episodes to finish off its 14th – yes, 14th! – season. These will more than likely be shown here in Ireland together with the final season of 19 episodes in the autumn (the show is scheduled to call time for good in February 2009). Producers are said to be working their charm to lure some of the show’s more famous alumni back for a last hurrah, amongst them George Clooney (as Dr Doug Ross), Julianna Margulies (Carol Hathaway) and Noah Wyle (John Carter).

However, all of the above plans for the autumn TV schedule are contingent on another potential industrial relations dispute. At the end of March, the two main Hollywood acting unions, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Screen Actors Guild, broke-up and will pursue new deals for their members separately.
This means that the already precarious negotiations between the actors and the studios have been made even more difficult, as one union may push for greater terms for its members, meaning a stalemate, or the nuclear option of an all-out strike by the actors could result. The actors’ contracts run out on June 30, and if a strike hobbles all work after that, then TV fans the world over could be facing into another lonely autumn and winter of discontent without their favourite shows.

When are they back:
Lost: Returned to RTE on April 28 for 4 episodes and then a 2-hour finale on June 9.
Ugly Betty: Returned on RTE on April 24 with 5 new episodes.
Grey’s Anatomy: Series 4 starts in its entirety on RTE in July (ahead of UK Living).
ER: Remaining episodes of series 14 to run alongside season 15 on RTE 1 in late autumn.

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