ABC mandates production cuts

Producers asked to trim budgets by 2%

With the economy continuing to falter, at least one TV studio is already mandating production cuts — while others aren’t too far behind.

ABC Studios recently asked its series producers to trim their budgets across the board by 2%. Move came as part of a companywide initiative that first became public last week via a leaked memo from ABC News topper David Westin.

“We report every day on the economic climate and the effects being felt throughout the country,” Westin wrote in the email. “We are not immune from the downturn.”

In the case of series producers, ABC Studios is leaving to each showrunner’s discretion how the 2% cuts will be made. Producers are being asked to identify what excesses they can cut immediately. Insiders noted that budgets are frequently padded for such a scenario and that in many cases the trims will be easy to identify.

Over at NBC Universal, a similar companywide initiative is under way to trim 3%, or $500 million, of its 2009 budget. NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios co-chairman Ben Silverman said producers have already been responding to studio urgings to cut costs.

“They, too, read the newspaper and are aware of the global economic slowdown,” he said. “They know they have to rightsize their cost structures as our partners.”

Budget pressures are nothing new in TV land. In the wake of upfront dollar declines earlier this decade, series budgets were trimmed. But the rise of ensemble-cast dramas and shows with expensive production values has shot those budgets right back up — starting with pricey pilots.

Those big budget productions were tolerable in more profitable times. Now, with everything from a weak scatter ad market to a stronger dollar (which putts a crimp in foreign sales), the nets and studios are hinting to producers that their cries for more sensible budgets are real.

Some have already seen cuts, such as the CW’s “Smallville,” where production costs were sliced by several hundred thousand dollars a seg this year.

Nets and studios are also already saving costs by, in some cases, cutting back orders (“Samantha Who?” got a “back seven,” rather than a “back nine,” because the net didn’t need extra episodes).

Many of the cost-saving measures are of the mundane variety, such as sourcing a better deal for cameras or instilling hiring freezes.

But in many cases, producers haven’t been asked to slash costs dramatically — at least, not yet.

But as conglom after conglom reports declining earnings, TV series producers are combing through their budgets and bracing for the inevitable.

“I feel it in the air,” said one producer. “I’m wondering and worrying when it’s going to happen.”

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