Top – drawer talent taps web wallets

Pssst – want to know what the networks are spending on their new series? The answer is, a lot.

According to a confidential report obtained by Variety outlining the pilot and regular-series license fees negotiated on new shows, the Big Three and Fox Broadcasting Co. have dug deep into their pockets this development season to fund what they hope is a new generation of hits. Top-dollar talent like Tony Danza, according to the report, has pushed the price of ABC’s “Hudson Street” to $575,000 an episode, while the Jean Smart/Faith Prince vehicle for CBS, “High Society,” has a price of $527,500.

The document reveals the high-stakes nature of the development game, which potentially offers enormous returns but takes more than a little extra seed money to attract top talent.

It can be particularly expensive for a network trying to pull itself out of the ratings doldrums. For instance, this development season, CBS – after finishing third in primetime and fourth in some key sales demographics – spent upwards of $45 million on pilots, most of which will never make it to series. That’s 10% to 15% more than the nets usually pay for pilots.

“The studios can bellyache about how much they have to deficit (finance) before they see a profit,” says a CBS insider. “And everyone can say how cheap (CBS chairman) Larry Tisch is. But nobody can say we didn’t spend some money to turn things around here.”

Still, Whereas the licensing fees for freshman dramas range from about $800,000 to $1.1 million and per-episode production hovers in the $1.2 million-$1.5 million range, the process is a multimillion-dollar gamble for producers as well as networks. Producers still have to hope they’ll be able to make up those deficits in international sales and, when they have enough episodes, in syndication or cable.

The situation is a similar crap-shoot for the producers of sitcoms, which have an average production cost of $600,000 to $800,000 but command license fees in the $400,000-$575,000 range.

Names vs. No-names

In addition, the data shows there’s still some disparity in the licensing fee a network will pay for a project based on star power as opposed to a project with no big names.

ABC’s hefty per-episode license fee of $575,000 for “Hudson Street,” for example, is top dollar for a half-hour sitcom. And that’s approximately what the network will pay for the midseason replacement show “Buddies,” from the creators of “Home Improvement.” However, ABC is shelling out only an estimated $432,000 for the Marie Osmond sitcom “Maybe This Time,” that figure being closer to the industry average.

Even at those levels, both series will carry a six-figure deficit per installment. Producers then have to recoup those losses down the road in syndication, where a bona fide sitcom hit can be worth $1 million or more per half-hour. The problem, of course, is that few aspirants even make it the four or five years on the network that syndication requires.

Other ABC rookies, such as highly touted “The Drew Carey Show,” from Warner Bros., with an estimated licensing fee of $460,000, and the Brillstein-Grey/ABC Prods, show “Somewhere in America,” at; about $425,000, are typical for new series.

At CBS, a spate of sitcoms given a good chance of making the fall lineup are in the same range, including “Bless This House” from Warner and “The Bonnie Hunt Show” from David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, both at $475,000. Yet another Worldwide Pants project, “Emmet & Earl,” which has no marquee names and is considered a long shot, has a pricetag of $410,000.

“It’s Simple. If a network likes certain talent, they will pay a little more to get them,” says a veteran producer. “That’s probably a bit more true at CBS than at the other guys.”

Licensing fees at Fox tend to be at the lower end of the spectrum. Two sitcoms the weblet reportedly has ordered – TriStar’s “Ned and Stacey” at $418,000 and Universal’s “Partners” at $423,500- carry typical half-hour license fees for Fox. Meanwhile, the longshot sitcom “Carlos,” a coventure from HBO Independent Prods, and Twentieth Television, came in even lower, at $375,000.

A similar range of licensing fees exists with dramas. CBS’s high-profile Darren Star-produced “Central Park West” seems a low-end bargain at $800,000. The price is lower in part because CBS owns the show with Star.

Two new ABC dramas, both from Warner Bros. – “Charlie Grace” ($905,000) and “The Monroes” ($908,000) –are about at the industry average.

Top Gun’-like pilot

Along with top fees for shows with top talent, projects with sophisticated special effects also tend to command higher fees. NBC’s f/x-packed military drama “JAG,” a partnership between NBC Prods, and Paramount, is at the high end at $l. l million.

In addition, NBC was willing to pay a top-end $3.5 million for the two-hour “Top Gun”-like pilot of “JAG,” almost twice the normal pilot license fee.

Other high-end, two-hour pilot fees include the $3.5 million NBC paid for possible midseason replacement “Seventh Avenue” from 20th Television and the $3.1 million CBS shelled out for “The Client” from WB.

More the norm is the $1.96 million CBS is paying Universal for the one-hour pilot of “American Gothic” or the $1.8 million it’s shelling out for “Central Park West.”

“To a certain extent, you get what you pay for,” says the CBS insider. “You watch the pilot of ‘The Client,’ with Jobbed Williams, and it looks terrific, like a theatrical release. But then ‘American Gothic’ looks good, too, and that cost us a lot less to do.”

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