Strike one for O-Town

When ABC Television announced in August that it was ordering 13 new episodes of "Making the Band," fans of the Orlando-based reality series were thrilled. Media watchers were puzzled.

The reality series -- which follows the machinations behind the Lou Pearlman boy band O-Town -- performed miserably this past summer. Rarely pulling anything higher than a 4.0 share in its 9 p.m. Friday time slot, "Making the Band" was regularly beaten by whatever else was showing on CBS, NBC or Fox. Some nights the band even got stomped by programs on UPN and the WB.

The programming wizards at Disney/ABC renewed the show for one reason only: the pending strike.

On May 1, 2001, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) is expected to go on strike, as its 11,000 members demand that the companies that actually produce the programs they write (i.e. Disney, Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal et al) share a sizable slice of the monies these companies are generating through new media (i.e. the Internet, DVD, etc.). Two months later, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is also expected to go on strike, looking for much the same thing.

Disney is notoriously hardnosed in negotiations. (In November 1998, the Mouse locked out 2,200 ABC technicians in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and D.C. in response to their one-day work stoppage. It took five months before Disney/ABC allowed them to go back to work.) SAG and WGA are preparing their members for long siege. Some insiders suggest that -- at the very least -- the start of the 2000-2001 TV season could be delayed by up to four months. Others paint an even gloomier picture.

Now keep in mind that, way back in 1998 -- when a writers' strike delayed the start of the 1988-89 TV season by just one month -- ABC, NBC and CBS lost a combined $500 million in ad revenue. Now multiply that loss by four or more, and you have an idea of the billions of dollars at stake here.

Why aren't companies like Disney rushing to avert this strike? Put simply, the Mouse doesn't want to share the money it's making.

Here's proof: On the heels of the infamous court case where Peggy Lee took Disney to court to collect monies due her from home video sales of "Lady and the Tramp," the Mouse rewrote the standard contract that all performers must sign if they provide a voice for a Disney animated film. The revisions require performers to accept a one-time-only fee for their work -- which prevents them from profiting from the project's theatrical release, TV rebroadcast, home or DVD sales as well as reproduction in any media not invented yet.

This is where "Making the Band" comes in. This behind-the-scenes series about the boys of O-Town might not exactly have been a ratings winner. But it has a distinct advantage over ABC hit programs like "The Drew Carey Show" or "The Practice": It doesn't need writers or actors to stay in production. Even if the WGA and SAG strike happens next summer, "Making the Band" can still go on ... and on ... and on ....

Further hedging its bets against having no new shows to fold into its ABC lineup, Disney has ordered up episodes of three other reality TV series:

• "The Mole," an adventure game show whose format originates from Belgium TV. This program follows a group of real people who have been recruited to accomplish some daunting task. What they don't realize is that one member of their troupe is a saboteur, who's deliberately out to derail their project. This group's mission: complete the task as well as unmask the "mole" for fun and huge cash prizes.

• "The Runner." Created by "Good Will Hunting's" writer-actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, this program is built on the premise of a real person trying to travel cross-country without being stopped or spotted by the public. Stu Bloomberg, co-chairman of the ABC Television Group, believes "The Runner" will become event television -- with the final episodes racking up "Survivor"-sized ratings.

• A third ABC reality series -- tentatively titled "Go New York" -- will follow the real-life exploits of a bunch of 20-somethings trying to launch a business in the Big Apple.

Mind you, it's not just the television side of Disney that might be affected by the strikes. There's a real possibility it could be a year more before the studio can put any new films into production.

That's why Disney is rushing to get a record number of motion pictures in the can before July 1, 2001. The Mouse hopes to have 16 films completed before the June 30 SAG deadline, which the studio would then release to theaters as slowly as possible while the strike drags on.

And in their rush to get as many new films completed as possible before the strike, Disney Studios is green-lighting some awfully odd projects. Witness the recent announcement of "The Country Bear Jamboree Movie," a full-length, live-action feature built around the characters featured in the theme-park attraction.

This movie -- which supposedly follows the bears' struggle to make a comeback following a painful public break-up -- would seem a natural for a TV spin-off. Indeed, Disney hopes to use this film as the basis for a country-western TV show that they hope to model after Jim Henson's smash syndicated success, "The Muppet Show."

Still, given Disney's hardnosed negotiating stance, it could be 2003 or later before anyone sees a single episode of the Country Bear Jamboree on TV.

And that would be ... OK with us.