CBS loves Romano to tune of $40 mil

In a deal that makes him TV’s highest-paid actor, Ray Romano will pull down nearly $40 million to return this fall for the eighth season of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

Romano and “Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal are signed up for only one more year, but CBS and producers HBO Independent Prods. and Worldwide Pants have nonetheless also hammered out the details of a new license fee agreement covering the eighth and ninth seasons of “Raymond.” That deal calls for the show’s license fee to soar to a figure between $5 million and $6 million per episode — a substantial leap over the under- $3 million fee the Eye has been shelling out for the past two years.

As for Romano, following a protracted negotiation, CBS, HIP and Worldwide Pants have agreed to pay the star a per-episode fee of between $1.8 million and $2 million, industry insiders said. That surpasses the $1.6 million-plus per-seg fee “Frasier” star Kelsey Grammer has been making for the last two years (Daily Variety, June 22, 2001) and, over the course of 22 episodes, gives Romano an annual salary likely in excess of $40 million.

It also more than doubles the $800,000-plus per-episode fee Romano had been making the past two years. However, unless Romano agrees to come back for an ninth season, Grammer’s two-year $75 million-plus pact remains the largest single TV talent deal brokered in recent memory, if not ever.

Huge sums for the show and star are no surprise given “Raymond’s” worth to the Eye. Skein is easily the net’s most successful laffer and serves as anchor of the net’s winning Monday lineup.

While “Raymond’s” Nielsen numbers have taken a hit this season, skein still averages nearly 19 million viewers with original episodes and is one of the small screen’s top five laffers among adults 18-49. Its affluent aud of viewers with annual income over $75,000 also helps it demand premium ad rates.

Romano’s deal was finalized less than week before the Eye’s Wednesday announcement of its 2003-04 schedule, an indication that negotiations for the new pact weren’t simple.

Personalities weren’t at issue. Both Romano and “Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal are personal friends with CBS prexy-CEO Les Moonves, and the Eye exec also has warm relations with Sam Haskell and Romano’s other agents at William Morris. What’s more, Romano’s lawyer at Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka & Finkelstein is John Moonves — Les’ brother.

But both Romano and Rosenthal have made clear their desire to have “Raymond” exit while still at the top of its game creatively and in the ratings. Indeed, at the start of the current season, Rosenthal told Daily Variety that he was uncertain whether the show would last beyond season seven (though Romano then posted a message on his personal Web site denying the current season would be the show’s last.)

Romano is also said to be interested in building his feature career, which includes the animated hit “Ice Age” and the upcoming black comedy “Eulogy.”

In addition to securing a license fee deal for a ninth season of “Raymond,” CBS also has talent deals in place for an additional season with all of the show’s actors, save Romano. Romano and Rosenthal, therefore, will ultimately have the final say on whether next season is the last for the show.

All parties involved declined to comment on the deals.

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