Nets and studios are holding the line on budgets

As the broadcast networks tout the economic recovery and robust upfront ad sales, the turnaround has been slow to trickle down to the creative community.

Staffing season is mostly over, and agents and scribes are cheering an increase in jobs this year — thanks to a boom in series orders (particularly at hit-starved NBC and ABC). But on the flip side, the networks and studios are still holding the line on budgets and writer salaries.

“I think we did a good job this year of not getting out of control on the size of our staffs or the amount of money we pay,” said one studio exec. “And we didn’t get leveraged into many development deals or other things in trying to staff people. While we went a little over budget, it’s an improvement from going way over budget, as we have in years past.”

That’s probably not what agents and scribes want to hear, as they battle studios to increase staff sizes or allow scribes to develop while working full time on a new show.

“Drama was healthy, but we were beaten down by deals in comedy,” said one agent. “We’re still feeling the effects of the strike and the economic downturn. Writers are still being punished.”

Said another agent: “If you have leverage, you can make a good deal. If you don’t, you don’t.”

That’s consistent with the trend over the past few years at the studios, which took advantage of the writers strike — followed by the recession — to slash spending on above-the-line compensation. The move toward fewer overall deals, and the fact that most of those pacts now require simultaneous services on one of the studio’s shows, has been well documented.

These days, when it comes to more traditional writing staff positions, scribes without leverage are being offered, on average, three-year deals with 4% annual salary bumps. In the past, those deals were shorter — allowing scribes more leeway to move around if better offers came up — and came with bigger raises.

What’s more, many writers are now being told that they must remain on staff full time and not develop new projects — a demand that isn’t sitting well with scribes and their reps.

Execs admit that they were tough on barring writers from developing while being staffed on a show, particularly a new one.

“It doesn’t do you a lot of good to hire someone on staff in a critical position, and then have them distracted,” one exec said. “It’s an ongoing battle. You get it, people want to do their own thing.”

Those scribes are also needed full time in the writers rooms now that staffs appear to have been permanently downsized. More series are fielding staffs of five or six scribes, instead of the old norm of 10 or 11. That count also comes as more shows boast non-writing producers, which impacts writer budgets.

Hurt the most are new writers, as there are fewer spots for showrunners to give a shot to rookies.

“You used to be able to raise people up,” said one rep. “It was a farm system. But there’s no money now for new writers. And you’re not going to hire a newbie.”

But the networks used to air a lot more shows — and with bigger staffs.

On the low end, some series manage to get around those staff downsizings by utilizing network diversity programs — in which scribes of color are paid through a fund set aside by the studio or network to foster the career development of women and minority writers. And in other cases, young scribes might be paired together in a practice known as “paper partners” — in which the writers operate separately, but split one salary, as if they’re partners.

That practice is generally frowned upon, although it’s more common in cable.

But things aren’t necessarily bad out there: One tenpercentery partner argues that any talented writer who wanted to work managed to get a job this year. And everyone agrees that there were more gigs to be had this year.

“The shows are tight, but most of our people are booked,” one agent said. Added another: “Great people were able to take jobs, or chose to develop. There was not a lot of heartache.”

With most strong writers already accounted for, midseason skeins that have just received pickups are actually struggling to find good hires. One insider said “Mad Love” exec producers Jamie Tarses and Matt Tarses, who appear close to landing a 13-episode midseason order from CBS, are having a tough time landing top talent. (That’s at least a good sign for the biz, although bad news for them.)

NBC’s decision to go back to scripted fare at 10 p.m. also gave the writing community much more hope compared to last year’s staffing season, when the very thought of the five-night “Jay Leno Show” strip had a demoralizing effect.

“NBC taking Jay Leno off the air was a good thing for the business,” one rep said. “There’s more optimism this year.”

While the Leno ax gave drama scribes reason to cheer, last year’s successful launch of sitcom “Modern Family” also boosted spirits among comedy writers. Although the number of half-hours this fall is unchanged from last year — 20 — that doesn’t include a number of shows waiting in the wings for midseason (some of which are actually expected to wind up on the sked later in the fall, such as Matthew Perry starrer “Mr. Sunshine”).

“I should think agents ought to feel good about this staffing season,” one studio head said. “There are more writers employed this year than last year. And for the general health of the business, enormous escalations in what people get paid is not necessarily a good thing. It might be in the short run for talent, but when the pendulum swings, there’s a backlash.”

Agents, meanwhile, appear resigned to the fact that the business was mostly flat this year for their clients, even if more upfront dollars pour into the networks’ wallets.

“I don’t expect that to translate into better writer deals,” one tenpercentery partner said. “If you got $24,000 last year, you got $24,000 this year. I don’t know if things will ever go back to the way it was.”

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