TV shows face the big squeeze

Series producers feel pinch as webs wield their scissors

Get ready for fewer car chases and more talking heads. Forget those lavish backdrops and resign yourself to more reruns.

That’s because TV shows are beginning to feel the pinch from corporate cost-cutters — and this time, it’s not likely to let up anytime soon.

When News Corp., for example, started slicing TV budgets last fall, even hit shows like Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” felt the pain.

The Murdoch mandate: Trim 2% on every series produced by the conglom’s TV studios (including ones from 20th Century Fox TV and “Malcolm” producer Regency TV).

For “Malcolm” creator Linwood Boomer, that meant shaving $30,000 from his $1.5 million per-episode budget.

“I sure as hell called every other show and made sure they were doing it, too,” Boomer says. “But it was put in the starkest terms, which is either we have to make these cuts or we have to fire people. The 2% is probably about 30 or 40 jobs that we could save.”

As congloms suffer viewer erosion, a weak economy, soft ad market and dwindling foreign sales, belt-tightening will affect projects across studio and network lines.

The real test for primetime shows will come this fall, when producers on new series will likely have fewer dollars to play with.

The creative types acknowledge that, in a recession, concessions are necessary, but they worry that cuts could eventually affect the quality of their shows.

“As a guy who’s done action shows for years, you have to have a certain amount of money to work with,” says “24” exec producer Bob Cochran. “You can’t put anything on that’s cheesy or hackneyed.”

But the networks, still coping with substantial shortfalls in ad revenues, are aiming to put even more of a squeeze on studios and production companies this pilot season.

Webheads like NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker want to dramatically push down the license fees his net pays studios to air new primetime fare — or order up fewer episodes each year of these primetime series. (Zucker recently greenlit two low-budget drama pilots.)

Nets are also increasingly gung-ho about repurposing shows and about carving out an ownership stake — both of which frequently mean easier money upfront but which could affect the producing studio’s ultimate backend riches.

“They all say, ‘We really don’t understand what’s going on,'” says “Once and Again” exec producer Marshall Herskovitz. “That’s a scary thing when you hear a network executive say that.”

At the same time, the foreign market for most U.S. shows has shriveled in the past few years, reducing another critical source of income for producers.

As a result, studios — faced with mounting deficits on their primetime skeins — continue to slash budgets and relieve themselves of pricey writer and talent deals.

And that means creative types like Boomer, Cochran and Herskovitz will have to figure out ways, like it or not, to create and produce cheaper primetime skeins.

Besides smaller writer and actor salaries, producers say there are a number of ways to trim costs on a primetime series:

n Instead of action scenes, writers will have to provide more dialogue.

“We don’t do helicopters and car chases, and we don’t have any scenes in cars,” says “Law & Order: SVU” exec producer Neil Baer. “Our budget won’t allow it.”

“24’s” Cochran, who previously exec produced USA’s low-cost “La Femme Nikita,” says that late-’90s show (which clocked in below $1 million per episode) stayed within budget by cutting back on action sequences.

Fox laffer “Bernie Mac” has also discovered a way to keep the single-camera show within budget. “Confessionals” segments, which consist of star Bernie Mac talking alone to a camera, are sprinkled throughout most episodes. When the show goes over cost, producers simply stretch the length of those confessionals.

n Producers will have to film more scenes on a soundstage rather than on location — and try to cut back on filming days.

“We shoot ‘JAG’ over eight days, and go outside four of those eight,” says exec producer Don Bellisario. “One of the ways to reduce costs is to go out just three or two days instead. That limits what you can do on screen. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes it forces you not to take the easy way out with your scripts.”

“Some of the best shows we’ve done were episodes where we decided to save money, cut a shooting day and keep the show interior,” he says. “But you can’t do that all the time.”

n Nets and studios are already recruiting fewer stars to topline series; producers will also be asked to cut back on guest casts.

Big stars rarely translate to hit series — just ask Bette Midler, Jason Alexander, Geena Davis and other well-known names who have tried their hand (and failed) at TV success in recent years.

As a general rule, TV creates new stars; stars don’t create hit TV shows. When it launched, the mostly unknown cast members on “Friends” were pulling down $25,000 an episode. Their salaries exploded again last week, to $1 million each per episode next year — but the show’s worth has more than covered those costs.

Stars may add a strong well-known quotient, but also add a few extra zeros to a drama or comedy budget.

“Another thing you might get driven to, and you see this in syndication, is fewer ensemble shows and more single-lead shows,” Cochran says.

Meanwhile, shows may save as much as $10,000 by cutting a guest cast member who adds little to an episode. Also, a gaggle of extras might be necessary to fill out a large scene, but that comes at a cost.

“We get great actors based on material,” Baer says. “We’re not like some shows that have the luxury of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on guest casts.”

n Studios may opt to move more productions outside of the country.

Canadian-shot shows have almost become the norm in first-run cable and syndication; series like “The X-Files” (save a few seasons in Los Angeles, per its stars’ request), “Dark Angel” and “Pasadena” have also cut costs by traveling over the border.

Some upcoming pilots, such as Fox’s “Keen Eddie,” are not only set in foreign lands, but may wind up shooting there permanently if picked up (in “Eddie’s” case, the U.K.). Another pilot, NBC’s Mel Harris vehicle “St. Georges,” will be shot entirely in South Africa if it’s picked up.

Producers have been generally willing to make those necessary changes — to a point.

“Across the board all companies are cutting back, and you don’t take it personally, but there it is,” Cochran says.

“It puts pressure on you and obviously pressure on the production people. You first try to make the same show for less money. And if that fails, you’ve got to change the nature of the show a little bit.”

In a more recent round of cost-cutting, the networks chopped episodic orders on underperforming shows like “Undeclared” and “The Ellen Show” — even though those shows had presumably received full-season pickups.

The producers of “Once and Again,” which had been ordered for 23 segs this season, later discovered that it had been pushed back to 19.

“We’ve had to scramble to try to figure out how we can resolve certain storylines we had already set in motion within the 19-episode parameter we’ve been given,” says Herskovitz. “We’re not brokenhearted, but we’re not thrilled.”

One studio exec says she’s had to say “no” to producers more often than at any other time in her professional career: “Everyone equates the size of their budget to the size of their worth in the community.”

Despite execs’ pledges to produce cheaper shows next fall, no one believes that an hour primetime show can be produced for under $1 million.

Creatives like Bellisario, who also exec produces frosh drama “First Monday,” wonder whether viewers will start noticing the effects of such cuts.

“I certainly have two very high-budget shows,” says Bellisario, whose “JAG” costs about $2.6 million per episode to produce.

“My concern is we’ll have to start cutting back in those areas that show on screen. And I’m sure new shows will have an even more difficult time.”

“Everybody Loves Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal worries that the emphasis on economics will simply lead to more bad TV shows.

“People put the cart before the horse when they decide what shows even get on the air,” he says. “They’re not thinking how good is this show; they’re thinking, ‘Do I have a spot for it? Will it syndicate well?’ ”

Rosenthal’s “Raymond” is relatively inexpensive below-the-line (its above-the-line actor and writer salaries, of course, are a different story) but has made millions of dollars for CBS and HBO Ind. Prods. Given those studio and network riches, the exec producer isn’t ready to start making supreme sacrifices just yet.

“If I want to spend the money on an ocassional lavish set or expensive guest star, I’m not going to get that much of an argument,” Rosenthal says. “If I did get an argument, I think at this point it would make me angry.”

Boomer, who says he always thought money was spent “irrationally and promiscuously” in Hollywood, made his cuts by paring down “Malcolm’s” guest casts and finding ways to build its sets more efficiently. The writer-producer says he relies heavily on “Malcolm” line producer Jimmy Simons to squeeze the show’s budget.

“He can say, ‘If you can take a night scene and make it a daytime scene, that will save us $5,000,” Boomer says. “And, ‘Can we eliminate a character who has one line in the show but who’s getting $10,000?’ ”

But given those trims, Boomer’s not sure there’s room for any more bleeding.

“We never spent money on silly stuff,” he says. “Our actors have very nice dressing rooms, but they don’t have gigantic buses that they then rent back to us for $15,000 a day. We don’t fly to Manhattan to do one day of shooting. We’re at that point now where any more trims would really start to cut into what we do on the show.”

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