The earthquake in Los Angeles has left the television industry with the short-term question of how to finish the programs that were being prepared for the February sweep competition, and the long-term question of whether television production there has become a serious financial risk.
Even as some television executives vowed to keep meeting production schedules, others were questioning whether a traditional positive Hollywood attitude would be enough to overcome the costs of rebuilding stages and sets and the lingering psychological damage of a week's worth of shocks and aftershocks."I think everyone wants to keep up that show-must-go-on feeling," said Warren Littlefield, the president of NBC Entertainment. "But it becomes difficult to stick with it when nerves are frayed from fear."
At this time of year, Littlefield and other network television executives are usually thinking about the sweep; last week, they were thinking more about sweeping up.
Their early assessments of the quake damage were very optimistic. Executives who checked on the status of their shows generally said they would lose a day or two of production at most.
That was a burst of good news for the networks, which usually have a backlog of programs to cover at least two weeks of a prime-time schedule. Executives had been concerned that a long gap in production would interfere with their schedules for the February sweep - a period when networks avoid reruns of any kind.
Amid the initial optimism, the big exception was one network's most important programming weapon and another network's most important tenant: "Seinfeld."
The stage where "Seinfeld" is videotaped was destroyed in the earthquake. That meant NBC might lose its most popular show during part of February, because only two finished episodes are now available for the sweep. The show is taped on a lot owned by CBS in Studio City, and that network is also concerned about losing the rental income.
Beams from the stage had been thrust through the walls. Though damage to the sets was minimal, studio executives said the stage was left too unstable to move the sets.
That left the show's producers with the choice of waiting until the stage was repaired - perhaps three weeks - or trying to establish a new location with new sets, an enormously expensive prospect.
The fact that "Seinfeld," the quintessential New York television comedy, had set up production in Los Angeles, only to be undone by the quintessential Los Angeles problem, an earthquake, was an irony lost on no one in the industry last week.
Still, the "Seinfeld" problems were largely shrugged off as an isolated bad example - at least at first.
On Thursday, network executives were still predicting that they would be able to broadcast their best programs during the entire sweep month, which begins a week from Monday. But by the weekend, as aftershocks continued to ripple across many sound stages, there were some second thoughts.
Several shows, including "Murphy Brown," "Mad About You," "Melrose Place" and "Sea Quest, DSV" which had gone back to work at midweek, closed up shop again. Some shows stopped in mid-scene on Friday after six aftershocks rumbled through the Los Angeles area in an hour.
And several industry executives speculated about the longer-term impact on Los Angeles, which has long been where nearly all television shows are produced.
Edward Grebow, the senior vice president of network operations for CBS, and the man in charge of repairing the network's damaged lot in Studio City, said the quake's impact on the industry would not be clear for months.
Some effects would be "very subtle," he said, citing transportation problems. Network and studio employees were reporting commutes of three and four hours last week as a result of damaged Los Angeles freeways.
"L.A. is a difficult place to work in general," Grebow said, "for all sorts of reasons having to do with density. Now add to it the uncertainty something like this causes. There's going to be real long-term impact on production."
He said Los Angeles would always be the center of production for television. But, he added, "If New York was able to get its act together it could probably take production business away from L.A. - though New York has its own problems."
Littlefield said NBC, whose headquarters in Burbank sustained about $3 million in damage in the quake, had a staff of "remarkably resilient people."
On the broader issues of production in Los Angeles, he said, "Everybody is asking themselves very tough questions, which is appropriate considering the environment we live in."
Some questions, he said, go like this: "If a building sustains $3 million of damage in a 6.6 quake, what happens if it's an 8? What kind of risk does that imply? And how do we protect our equipment and most of all our people? In corporate corridors right now, that's not going to be a very attractive investment."
Quake takes `Second Chances'
Last week's earthquake destroyed the Valencia, Calif., sets of the CBS drama "Second Chances," and will knock that show off the air.
Only two more episodes of the show have been completed, and while producers look for new locations, "Chances" is expected to be off the schedule until late this spring or possibly until summer.