U.S. television viewers looking to settle back into such favorite series as Desperate Housewives, CSI and The Office will be in for a rude awakening after the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Fresh episodes of those shows and many others will be replaced by a glut of reality programs and reruns headed to the major networks in January as the Hollywood writers strike comes home to roost in prime time after first hitting late-night TV.
The writers' walkout, now in its sixth week with no settlement in sight, has halted production on 50 to 60 scripted comedies and dramas, and the supply of new episodes is about to run dry.
Broadcasters are getting through December with traditional Christmas-season specials, TV movies and sports. But come January, the networks will begin scrambling to plug numerous strike-related programming holes.
The labor clash between major studios and writers could hardly come at a worse time for networks, as prime-time ratings are already down this season compared to a year ago.
The networks are really going to feel the heat when the new year begins, said Marc Berman, senior editor for the trade publication Media Week. And it's going to be a completely different experience for the viewer.
The new wave of reality TV shows includes the weekend warrior contest American Gladiators from NBC, philanthropic competition Oprah's Big Give on ABC; and two Fox entries -- the female-domination experiment When Women Rule the World, and The Moment of Truth, which hooks contestants to a lie detector and challenges them to answer embarrassing personal questions for cash.
Network executives say some of these shows were planned before the strike, which began on November 5. But many were fast-tracked in anticipation of a protracted labor dispute.
OH BROTHER, MORE BIG BROTHER
CBS, for example, has ordered a first-ever winter edition of its summer reality staple Big Brother to run three nights a week starting in February.
And Survivor, the CBS castaway competition that helped ignite the reality craze in 2000, returns for a 16th installment, along with last summer's Drew Carey-hosted quiz show, Power of 10. Newer game shows headed to CBS include Do You Trust Me? and Million Dollar Password.
CBS Corp CEO Leslie Moonves told an investor conference last week that ratings for his network would likely fall this winter. But because reality shows are cheap to make, he added that costs will be down considerably.
CBS also is relying on reruns of its biggest scripted hits, notably detective shows like CSI, Cold Case and Criminal Minds that manage to draw higher ratings in repeats than more highly serialized dramas on other networks.
Moonves revealed one other programming trick up his sleeve -- borrowing popular shows from sister cable network Showtime, such as Dexter or Weeds. NBC, a unit of General Electric Co, likewise is poaching a Law & Order spinoff from its sibling cable channel USA Network.
Turning to the Internet for more strike-proof material, NBC recently picked up the Web-based series Quarterlife, a drama originally created for the social-networking site MySpace.com.
NBC has plenty of reality fare on tap too, including the fatherhood challenge My Dad is Better than Your Dad, a celebrity edition of Donald Trump's The Apprentice, and Baby Borrowers, a British import that simulates the rigors of parenthood for five teen-age couples.
The popular NBC game show Deal or No Deal will return for two nights a week.
Fox seems best positioned to weather the strike thanks mostly to the annual return of its smash hit talent contest American Idol, which debuts its seventh season in January.
Fox also has several new scripted shows it plans to launch in early 2008, including the highly anticipated sci-fi thriller Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a spinoff of the blockbuster movie series that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But Terminator will have to make do without a lead-in boost from 24, which the News Corp-owned network recently shuttered because of the writers strike.
A few returning shows already slated to run in mid-season may actually benefit from a lack of scripted original programs they would otherwise have to compete with, such as NBC's critically praised teen football drama Friday Night Lights.
Another is the CBS comedy The New Adventures of Old Christine, starring Seinfeld veteran Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as well as the apocalyptic drama Jericho, resurrected from near cancellation to run a second season.
ABC, a unit of the Walt Disney Co, still has about eight episodes of its hit drama Lost to bring back starting in February. Its reality offerings include a new installment of Dancing with the Stars, plus two new dance contest shows and the return of The Bachelor, Supernanny and Wife Swap.
New ABC reality titles include the hidden-camera show Just for Laughs, the quiz show Duel and Here Come the Newlyweds, a game of elimination among a group of just-married couples.