Pink slips fly at CWM

Production co. to cut about 35 of 130 employees

Indie production vet Carsey-Werner-Mandabach will cut up to 25% of its staff over the next few weeks — another sign of the still-ailing TV economy and the difficulties associated with remaining unattached.

Layoffs are expect to hit about 35 of CWM’s roughly 130 person staff, with cuts coming from both the production and distribution arms of the company. Company prexy-chief operating officers Bob Dubelko and Dirk van de Bunt outlined the cost-cutting plans in a memo issued to staffers last week.

While the percentage of staffers affected is high, the actual number of layoffs will be relatively small since CWM has remained a lean operation over the years despite its track record of success.

But CWM has also remained fiercely independent at a time when nets are seeking to own as much of their own programming as possible. Other indies have conceded this new reality by agreeing to give up half-ownership of projects to nets or their studio arms; CWM, however, has largely chosen to keep full control of its skeins.

“We have to address changes in the economy and the TV business,” Dubelko and van de Bunt said in the memo. “We’ve come out with a number of cost-cutting measures this past year. But it is now clear that we have to go farther…. We’re working with department heads to look at every process and function to see where we can lower costs and still maintain quality. Unfortunately for some employees, this will mean a loss of a job as specific duties are consolidated or eliminated.”

News of the impending layoffs comes as CWM execs await word on how many projects the studio will have on the air come fall.

Fox’s “That ’70s Show,” which heads into syndication this fall, is a lock to return. But two other CWM-produced Fox laffers — “That ’80s Show” and the critically praised “Grounded for Life” — are still on the bubble. CWM also has one pilot under consideration for the fall: ABC’s “The Mayor of Oyster Bay.”

Worst case scenario

While CWM execs are upbeat about the prospects of all three bubble projects — and “Grounded” remains a serious contender — there’s still a shot the studio could end up with just one series on the air next fall, ” ’70s Show.” If that happens, it would be the first time since the launch of “Cosby Show” spinoff “A Different World” in 1987 that CWM hasn’t had two shows on the fall skeds.

A CWM spokesman, however, said the cutbacks weren’t related to how many programs the studio will have on the air next fall. Instead, they are part of a larger effort to keep CWM a lean, profitable operation in the wake of a tough TV economy.

“As an independent we’ve always been a very flexible company, which has contributed to our longevity over the years,” the spokesman said. “No one likes making such decisions when you have a great staff like we do, but these changes are necessary in view of the changes in the business.”

Indie landscape remade

Indeed, those changes have already cost the marketplace two major indie suppliers. Artists Television Group folded after just one season, while Sony last fall chose to streamline its operations to focus on nontraditional forms of primetime programming.

DreamWorks TV, meanwhile, may soon become a very different kind of operation as its owners seek a new overall deal that could get the company out of the deficit-financing business of making television (Daily Variety, April 9.)

CWM plans to begin telling staffers about specific cuts over the next three weeks. “We will do everything we can to ease the transition, including provisions for severance,” Dubelko and van de Bunt said in their memo.

There’s been some buzz around town that CWM may also be planning some high profile exec changes over the summer, but a spokesman said no such changes were in the works.