Jay Leno by Paul Drinkwater/NBC
The strike by the Writers Guild of America is just two weeks old and there's already been a lot of fretting about what fans will do when first-run episodes of their favorite shows run out. So what will happen if, despite the recent agreement to resume talks on Nov. 26, it goes on for 22 weeks like the last work stoppage in 1988?

According to Shari Ann Brill, a senior vice president at the ad-buying firm Carat, this strike is going to hurt a whole lot more. "Television as a medium will survive this, but the days of powerful rule by the broadcasters over audiences and advertisers could suffer a crippling blow from a prolonged disruption," she says.

The 1988 strike, she noted, occurred in early March. This was before the official TV season included the May sweeps, so most series had completed production for the season. Even though there was no end in sight for the work stoppage, the networks went ahead and presented a new fall schedule for the 1988-89 season and sold time on it to advertisers.

The strike was settled in August, which delayed the start of the season for many series. But there was still plenty of stuff to watch. NBC had the Summer Olympics in Seoul, which started in mid-September. Major League Baseball playoffs were still delivering muscular ratings and were not the event that networks dread carrying now. It was a presidential campaign season in which the networks carried several debates and didn't have to share them with several cable news outlets. Theatrical movies and miniseries were still a major staple of the prime-time lineups, and they had plenty of those in the pipeline.

The strike of '07 was called smack in the middle of the production cycle for most shows. With the networks out of the movie business, and sports less of a player on the broadcast networks this time of year, the networks are relying on repeats, reality and newsmagazines. Ad agencies will be monitoring the situation closely, Brill says, because a significant ratings drop means they'll have to make alternative plans to sell products. "There are very few alternatives to replace the reach and impact of first-run broadcast television," she says.

Needless to say, the competitive landscape was a lot different in 1988. There were only 17 national cable networks that were rated by Nielsen. Brill says to compare that with the 88 cable outlets Nielsen measures now. "The broadcast television business is in a much more fragile state than it was in 1988," she says. "Erosion and fragmentation continues, and the presence of online and offline TV alternatives continues to grow." If the strike goes far into 2008, she adds, "the networks will experience an accelerated [ratings] decline."

The drop was already evident in the first casualty of the strike, the late-night shows. Repeat episodes of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno were down 16 percent in viewers 18 to 49 during the first strike week. Late Night with Conan O'Brien was off nine percent. (CBS's Late Show with David Letterman and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live fared better with only slight decreases). But if the trend continues, the hosts will feel the pressure to return before the strike is over, something that's already being discussed.

For ongoing WGA strike coverage, read TVGuide.com's Strike Watch blog.