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Impending strike by TV writers may leave viewers hanging

Production of shows like ABC's 'Grey's Anatomy,' starring Patrick Dempsey and Ellen Pompeo, may be stalled by a writers' strike. Production of shows like ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," starring Patrick Dempsey and Ellen Pompeo, may be stalled by a writers' strike. (karen neal/abc)

LOS ANGELES - TV viewers hooked on cliffhanger episodes of hit shows such as "Heroes" and "Grey's Anatomy" could be left dangling if writers walk off the job.

With Hollywood writers poised to log off their laptops as soon as Thursday, TV networks were bracing for the need to fill the airwaves with reality shows, game shows, and even reruns if a threatened strike devours their script inventory.

Viewers could start seeing an onslaught of unscripted entertainment by early next year, when popular series such as "Desperate Housewives" and "Heroes" run out of new episodes.

"I was in a network meeting today, and they were referring to the fact the timing is really good for reality producers," said producer Mark Cronin.

He and partner Cris Abrego have been consistently busy with shows such as "Flavor of Love," "I Love New York," and "The Surreal Life."

But "it's going from 50 miles per hour to 70 miles per hour," Cronin said, adding that networks must "protect themselves and fill their air space."

Members of the Writers Guild of America and the group representing film and TV producers were set to meet today with a federal mediator after scant progress in contentious talks that have dragged on since July.

With the current contract set to expire at midnight tomorrow, negotiators remain far apart on the central issue of raising payment for profits on DVDs and shows offered digitally on the Internet, cellphones, and other devices.

More than 5,000 members of the Writers Guild of America recently voted, with 90 percent authorizing negotiators to call the first strike since 1988 if necessary.

"I'm willing to put my family on the line for what's right," said Mick Betancourt, a writer on the NBC show "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

A newcomer to TV's writing ranks earns about $70,000 per season for full-time work on a show.

Veteran writers who move up to a story-editor position would get at least a low six-figure salary, with a "written by" credit on an hourlong script paying an additional $30,000 plus residuals.

Writers are free to negotiate for higher pay, and people who produce or coproduce - called "hyphenates" in industry parlance - earn more.

If writers walk out, the effect wouldn't be felt immediately. Networks have enough episodes of shows such as "Ugly Betty" and "CSI" written and in production to last at least through the end of the year and possibly into next February, industry executives and analysts said.

But after that, schedules will run into trouble. Producers already have tried to hurry shooting in preparation for a strike but not always successfully.

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