LOS ANGELES, Nov 2 (Reuters) Late-night talk show host David Letterman joked this week that if US film and TV writers go on strike, as is widely feared, he would be forced to write his own material to keep his show on the air.
''It might be fun ... to tune in and see what I can come up with on my own,'' the sardonic star of the CBS ''Late Show with David Letterman'' said, drawing laughs from a studio audience.
The more likely scenario should the Writers Guild of America declare a strike is that Letterman would join arch rival Jay Leno of NBC's ''The Tonight Show'' and other late-night funnymen, including cable TV stars Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, in taking a forced vacation.
The Guild's contract with producers expired at 0931 IST yesterday, setting the stage for the first major US film and television industry strike in nearly 20 years. But The Guild did not immediately call for a walkout by its 12,000 members.
As Hollywood filmmakers worry about what could be a crippling labor confrontation, experts say TV would be hit first by a writers strike, with soap operas and late-night talk shows halting production.
Those programs are produced on a daily basis and depend on a steady supply of fresh material from their writers -- melodramatic intrigue for soaps, topical monologues and gags for late night. For them, a strike means immediate reruns.
NBC's weekly late-night comedy-sketch show ''Saturday Night Live'' would also be knocked out of production.
''Boom -- our show just shuts down,'' cast member Amy Poehler told Daily Variety. ''It's just done. There is no backlog of scripts.'' The effects on prime-time dramas and sitcoms would be little noticed by viewers at first. The writers behind those shows have labored feverishly for months to stockpile scripts that can be produced once a walkout begins.
''A lot of writers are working 24 hours a day to finish assignments,'' said Carlton Cuse, a writer and executive producer of the ABC hit ''Lost'' who also sits on the WGA negotiating committee.
STRIKE-PROOFING PRIME TIME Most prime-time shows currently on the air are said to have enough episodes written in advance to last until January or even February. After that, the networks would likely be forced to air more reruns and ''strike-proof'' programs not covered by the WGA contract, including reality shows, sports and news.
The potential for a strike comes at a precarious time for television, as networks already are struggling to hold on to their share of an increasingly fragmented audience.
Much is at stake, with networks facing the renegotiation of ad rates or the extensive give-away of commercial time as ''make-goods'' to advertisers if ratings falter.
The potential impact on the Los Angeles economy would be big. The last time the writers struck in 1988, the 22-week work stoppage cost the entertainment industry an estimated 0 million, but the industry has grown considerably since then.
The entertainment industry currently comprises about 7 percent of Los Angeles County's overall economy, which amounts to about billion annually. The effects would also be felt outside California by networks and companies headquartered elsewhere.
Major prime-time shows, especially mid-season offerings scheduled to return to prime time early next year, like ''Lost'' or the Fox network thriller ''24,'' could be especially hard hit in the event of a prolonged strike.
ABC for instance had planned to run 16 episodes of ''Lost'' consecutively, from February through May, to keep fans hooked.
But Cuse said producers will only have eight episodes written before the WGA contract expires.
With all those complications, it's no wonder the networks are turning to reality for some measure of strike salvation.
''Interest (in reality shows) has become a lot more heated with the strike approaching,'' said Morgan Langley, a producer of the Fox network's real-life police documentary show ''Cops'' and a new spinoff, ''Jail.'' ''I'll probably be in a lot of pitch meetings before the holidays,'' he said. ''It's a good thing for reality TV business, but not such a good thing for the TV business as a whole.'' REUTERS SZ HS0857