The upfront season usually costs the networks around $3 million to $5 million, but they bring in billions in ad buys. Networks are spinning the strike as an opportunity to break with the industry's traditions and do things differently. Conversely, the Los Angeles Times reported that "dozens of striking film and TV writers are negotiating with venture capitalists to set up companies that would bypass the Hollywood studio system and reach consumers with video entertainment on the Web."

If Wall Street was caught flat-footed by the writers' strike, it may reflect a lack of a sense of history. The last such strike occurred in 1988 and it went on for 22 weeks. The current strike has only been in place for seven weeks.

NBC's late-night comedy hosts Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien have agreed to return to the air on Jan. 2 with or without their writers, but that offers little hope of an overall resolution since both hosts were careful to express support for the guild.

Negotiations between the writers and the production companies have revolved largely around issues related to the distribution of movies and television shows over the Internet. Recently, guild demands for jurisdiction over reality TV and animated-film writers have also been a sticking point.

All the networks are expected to lean heavily on reality TV in January and February to fill their prime-time schedules. News Corp.'s Fox Broadcasting is especially well positioned with its smash hit talent show "American Idol" on tap. For its part, NBC will have reality shows on almost every night of the week, with shows like "American Gladiator" and "Celebrity Apprentice."