— The writers strike is essentially over, but as it comes to an end, television will not immediately change, nor has it significantly changed TV.
Because new episodes of scripted dramas can take more than a month to produce, the end of the strike doesn't mean that new episodes of series will suddenly appear. Most industry observers are predicting that only about four to six new episodes of suspended dramas such as "Grey's Anatomy," "CSI," and "Desperate Housewives" will air in May.
Half-hour sitcoms may return earlier, as they take far less time to write and shoot, especially those few that use the traditional three-camera format. Most late-night shows returned during the strike, which means the first series to make its post-strike debut may actually be "Saturday Night Live."
While late-night TV will be up to full speed almost immediately, there will be no new dramas or comedies in the near future, and many networks may actually decide to hold the return of some shows until fall. That's a distinct possibility for new series such as ABC's "Pushing Daisies," NBC's "Chuck," and The CW's "Reaper."
Despite being creatively strong, they didn't really find a lot of traction during their abbreviated debuts in the fall. Writers, producers and networks don't want a series to build momentum only to have that interrupted and maybe even damaged by the summer break, leaving the show with a faded audience come fall.
Besides new series, others could also suffer from a shorter spring run. Perhaps the best example is "24," which may not air its next season until the fall or even next spring, as its real-time storytelling format relies on momentum that it creates over 24 consecutive episodes. "Heroes" creator Tim Kring told Entertainment Weekly that his series could only produce three episodes by May, and he said just airing those three and then taking a break could be "creatively dangerous."
Poised to fight
Some series are well-positioned to fight the possible damage that would result from a break. ABC has already aired two of eight new episodes of "Lost," and shortly after they conclude, new episodes could be ready to air.
Strike-induced series such as the first-ever winter season of CBS' "Big Brother" will proceed, as will strike-proof series such as FOX's "American Idol" and the upcoming sixth season of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." That's also true for new series such as ABC's "Eli Stone" and FOX's "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," which already had half-seasons ready to go before the strike.
Some publications are providing best-guess or informed estimates about the debut of new episodes and the status of the current TV season (TV Guide's Michael Ausiello, The Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan and The New York Times' Brian Stelter), but what's clear is that no one really knows anything yet about when series will actually be back.
In the coming weeks, networks could reshuffle their schedules, moving reality series out of the way of returning scripted series, but otherwise, the end of the strike may not be obvious on TV screens until May.
In other words, we're left with the TV season as it stands now. While ratings may be down and viewers are missing some favorites, television is not really in terrible shape. The biggest consequence of the strike may have been the effective cancellation of the Golden Globes, but was a single awards telecast really missed?
Of course, the writers strike has been financially devastating — to writers, support staff, and everyone else who has been out of work — as writers fought for a fare share of revenues from those people and corporations who profit from their creativity.
The reality for viewers, however, has been considerably different, as the strike seems to have had little impact on TV.
Most series didn't run out of new episodes immediately, and some — such as "House" and "CSI" — have aired new episodes this year. A lack of new shows was expected to help "American Idol" be more powerful than ever before. While it has dominated in the ratings, it's not doing as well as it was last year, when it had greater competition.
Even writerless shows such as "The Daily Show" seem to be barely affected by the strike. In fact, viewership is up, even though Jon Stewart has rerun some sketches. That's probably because there's an election going on, and his political analysis and increasing interaction with the show's correspondents don't seem much different than they did pre-strike.
Meanwhile, ratings for some replacement series are actually better than the shows they replaced, as viewers are introduced to new shows that have caught their interest, whether they are reality TV ("American Gladiators") or scripted ("Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles").
Those shows don't come across as dirt cheap, hastily produced filler, which was a possible consequence of the strike. Perhaps that's just the result of advance planning by network executives, but no new shows seem to be have been slapped together to quickly replace depleted supplies of dramas and comedies.
There have been some new reality shows and game shows, but there's nothing new or surprising about that. Some blocks of time, particularly on Sunday nights, have been filled with specials that otherwise may not have seemed out of place during the regular season, but those were the exception.
The most obvious example of strike filler hasn't even debuted yet. On Tuesday, CBS' summertime train wreck "Big Brother" will get its first exposure outside of the protective cover of decreased viewership and expectations during July and August.
Instead of filler, there's just a different model. The interruption of familiar series and the introduction of new shows has resulted in a schedule and television landscape that accidentally resembles cable — not necessarily in terms of quality, but structurally, with shorter seasons and long breaks between batches of new episodes.
HBO and Showtime viewers are intimately familiar with that kind of schedule, as most of their scripted shows air a single season a year. "The Sopranos" was notorious for airing 13 episodes and then vanishing for a year or more. In the meantime, other series take their place, just as is now happening on network television.
Those shorter seasons and long breaks may not be solely responsible for the often dramatic difference in quality between scripted series on cable and broadcast television, but they cannot hurt. Long seasons on the networks often equal time-killing, water-treading, artificially inflated storylines.
Perhaps the strike could have led the networks toward that model, or toward other significant changes: more repeats to allow viewers to catch up, a dramatically increased amount of reality television or game shows (especially the cheap ones), more prime-time news programming.
None of that happened, and ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW look like they once did, largely unchanged on the surface. At least behind the scenes, those people who make a large part of television possible now have a better deal.