TV costs a ‘virus’

Studio exex bemoan rising talent prices

In a wide-ranging state-of-the-biz session with reporters Sunday, studio TV chieftains sounded the alarm on rising costs for inexperienced talent.

With six broadcast networks now buying primetime fare, demand for proven writers and producers has never been greater, nor has the talent pool ever been thinner, studio brass agreed.

“It’s a virus and we’ve got to cure it,” said Universal TV chairman Greg Meidel Sunday at the session hosted by the Television Publicity Executives Committee as part of the semiannual Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena.

“It’s not just the A talent that has gotten extremely expensive, but it’s the B and C talent that have skyrocketed to new heights,” Meidel said. “And where it really gets difficult is the showrunners.”

Dean Valentine, president of Walt Disney TV and Walt Disney TV Animation, concurred, noting that network license fees have been stagnant while production costs soar.

New shows rockier

“Our new shows are rockier and the people who are running them are less experienced,” Valentine added. “It’s a real problem. The only solution to it is network collaboration” in an effort to hold the line on costs.

In the early 1990s, Valentine said, sitcom writers were earning annual salaries of about $800,000. Today, $3 million-$4 million deals for writers are not uncommon.

Other panelists were quick to note that the Big Three networks have good reason to be concerned about rising production costs, now that they’re legally able to own significant stakes in the programs they air and network/studio co-productions are flourishing.

Not surprisingly, the surge in network ownership of primetime programs slotted for the coming season was a hot topic for the studio brass.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the changes brought by deregulation have not spelled the death knell for studios such as Columbia TriStar that are not aligned with networks or TV station groups, said Andy Kaplan, executive vice president of Columbia TriStar TV.

“Having a partner to help finance your production slate is not necessarily a bad thing,” said Kaplan. “The network can be a good partner — they’ve got inside information. But I suspect in the long run the networks will find that you can’t do it all yourself, you can’t invest in everything. They’ve got to find a balance.”

Garry Hart, president of Paramount Network TV, added that the threat to the studios by network inhouse production had been overblown. “I’d rather see (20th Century Fox TV) and (Warner Bros. TV) go away than NBC Studios.”

Universal’s Meidel was more blunt, drawing an analogy to the banking industry.

“Really, what the studios are, are the banks of this business,” he said. “Now we have another competitor that’s acting kind of like the savings and loans did to the banks. Maybe when the S&Ls stop paying their mortgages they’ll come back to us.”

Tony Jonas, president of Warner Bros. Television, said the WB Network gives the studio an advantage with its network buyers, particularly when it comes time to renew a hit.

“The WB was basically invested by (Warner Bros. co-chairman) Bob Daly and (Time Warner chairman) Gerald Levin to have a hedge against (increased inhouse production) competition from the networks. But you have to remember … Warner Bros. is shouldering 100% of the costs being spent on” Warner Bros.-produced shows for the fledgling weblet.

Moreover, studios that do own networks are increasingly faced with conflict-of-interest issues, noted Disney’s Valentine, referring to the pending lawsuit against the studio by the “Home Improvement” production team.

Wind Dancer Prods. claims synergy concerns prompted Disney’s production arm to renew “Home Improvement” on ABC rather than seek top dollar from another network.

Some agreement

“All of the large media companies are going to have to deal with this issue some day,” said Valentine. “They’re going to have to come up with some sort of perpetual license agreement or some kind of agreement on these issues. We don’t want to be in the position of having shows on our own networks and then being sued by our own producers. It’s not a tenable situation.”

On Sunday, the TV Critics Assn. also presented its 13th TCA Awards, with CBS’ “EZ Streets” tapped program of the year, and Fred Rogers recognized for career achievement. Two NBC stars, David Hyde Pierce (“Frasier”) and Andre Braugher (“Homicide: Life on the Street”) won awards for individual achievements in comedy and drama, respectively.

Other winners were HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show,” comedy; “Homicide,” drama; PBS’ “The American Experience,” news and information; Showtime’s “Bastard Out of Carolina,” miniseries/special; PBS’ “Wishbone” and PBS/syndie’s “Bill Nye the Science Guy” tied for children’s programming; and ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” sports.

Winners were voted on by the 175 members of the org and awards were given out at Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel ceremonies.

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