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Stock deal might save ‘Seinfeld’

The biggest cliffhangers at NBC are whether “Seinfeld” will come back for a ninth season, and whether NBC can get it back without changing the way stars of hit sitcoms are compensated.

You already know that NBC has steadfastly refused to go above $250,000 per episode for co-stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards, who now earn $150,000 and want $1 million to make up for the syndication revenue they never got. The web is reluctant to set a salary precedent that will haunt future talent talks for the sake of one more blue-chip season of a series destined to end in 1998 anyway.

That said, talks to seal a deal with show co-creator and star Jerry Seinfeld have moved to the highest levels of NBC: president Robert Wright and parent company General Electric chairman Jack Welch, and what they’re proposing is precedent-setting, sources say. Word is that Seinfeld’s deal will give him a substantial chunk of options on GE stock on top of his salary and back-end. At the same time, it’s speculated that Seinfeld might share the wealth with his co-stars to break the negotiating stalemate and save the series for one more year. Neither Seinfeld nor NBC would comment.

Not since Dean Martin

Dealmakers are watching the “Seinfeld” situation closely. It might be the first time the web has considered giving ownership to talent since Dean Martin hosted a show there. Stock is also something former “Today” host Bryant Gumbel is seeking, and sources say his courtship by ABC ended because Disney chairman Michael Eisner wouldn’t break precedent and fork over the options.

The “Seinfeld” situation certainly wouldn’t go unnoticed by “Home Improvement” star Tim Allen, who is highly competitive with his comedy colleague Seinfeld and currently has a lot of leverage. Allen just made a whopping $25 million from the studio, sources say, as its way of placating the star of the big Disney franchise.

Disney in battle with Allen

Acrimony had been escalating over Disney’s insistence that neither the syndication of “Home Improvement” nor Allen’s debut pic “The Santa Clause” was profitable, prompting Allen to order an audit of the studio’s accounting. “Clause” was a relatively low-cost smash hit, and the series has raked in an estimated $250 million in rerun revenue so far, with Disney grossing about $1.4 million a week from its barter spots.

Disney, sources say, gave Allen $25 million as an advance against future revenues to patch things up, and Allen put the audit on hold. But the studio only has him for one more season of “Home Improvement.” It might take stock to bring him back for an eighth. Disney declined to comment.

If some stock is made available to the “Seinfeld” co-stars through their TV boss, it could ease tensions that have the trio of thesps looking at other options. Seinfeld has cast his lot at NBC but has vowed not to return unless his co-stars do. Freeing up some stock options might do the trick.

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