TV industry battles the raise craze

Tough stance being taken toward thesps

Network TV may not have produced a “Survivor”-size breakout hit this summer, but execs have managed to attract loads of attention for at least one behind-the-scenes drama: that old standby “Everybody Loves Money.”

On the set of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” everybody but Ray Romano is unhappy with his current salary situation, though a settlement seems in sight.

Meanwhile, the four main cast members of “The West Wing” are again asking Warner Bros. TV for a bump, while more quietly, thesps Jim Belushi and Damon Wayans have been nagging ABC-owned Touchstone Television about pay hikes.

Such haggling is old hat for execs. Despite all the headlines about “Raymond,” for example, most industry pros would be shocked if everyone’s not back to work in a few weeks.

What may be changing is the increasingly tough stance taken toward thesps who seek big raises.

Diminishing syndie coin and rising production costs have made it harder than ever for nets and studios to turn a profit. Now, having already slashed the coin they pay to scribes, execs are making it clear that the days of automatic salary renegotiations may also be over.

Indeed, at least one web has already started telling actors upfront that they shouldn’t expect an automatic raise after two seasons.

“It’s no longer a three-network world, revenues are being dispersed, and the profitability issue really comes into play,” said one senior TV exec. “There’s a re-evaluation going on as to whether it’s really acceptable for actors to keep (opening up their deals).”

Execs point out that with big hits like “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Raymond” or “CSI” increasingly rare in network TV, successful shows have to pay for many, many more failures than before.

It’s so much easier in the film world.

Feature producers shell out ungodly sums for superstars, stiff everybody else — and then are largely done with salary battles until there’s talk of a sequel (or a backend lawsuit over how much coin the pic actually made).

But in a town where TV talent contracts carry as much weight as a Schwarzenegger campaign speech, it’s no surprise that the warm weather months between small-screen seasons reliably deliver at least one or two headline-worthy renegotiation dramas each year.

“This is the only business where people feel they have a right to not honor their contract,” said one TV vet.

A new show is typically populated with unknowns who later turn into TV stars if the skeins hits, and that virtually ensures contractual chaos.

During the frenzy of pilot season, thesps often make last-minute deals with networks that pay them a relative pittance. Pacts keep the actors tied to the show for up to six years, usually with only minimal raises built in.

But if a show becomes a big hit, yesterday’s nobody is suddenly a big star demanding a big star’s salary.

Studios used to accept as a fact of life that, should a show make it a third season, cast deals — and pocketbooks — would be opened wide. In exchange, thesps extended their deals for a year or two.

There were exceptions — just ask Suzanne Somers and Valerie Harper. But with even mediocre sitcoms and dramas snagging healthy sums in syndication, doubling or tripling a top thesp’s salary usually didn’t hurt too much.

These days, networks often paint thesps like Garrett or “The Sopranos” star James Gandolfini as greedy pigs who’d deny viewers their favorite shows in order to make a quick buck.

But reps for actors say such characterizations ignore the realities of the TV casting business.

“When you’re making a pilot deal, you usually don’t have any leverage, and the studios aren’t going to give you anything. These aren’t warm and generous people who want to be fair,” said one top talent rep.

“When the leverage shifts over time, and someone becomes a celebrity, it’s the actor’s turn to get (even).”

One lawyer doesn’t buy the network bellyaching about too much coin for actors.

“They’re never going to pay more than they can afford,” the attorney said. “All this rhetoric they put out is just an attempt to win. It’s positioning.”

Webheads and studio chiefs — ho, thanks to consolidation, are often the same person — see things a bit differently.

They point out that actors are frequently given quiet raises in the second and third years of deals — sometimes without asking.

Regency TV and 20th Century Fox quietly hiked the paychecks for the cast of “The Bernie Mac Show” this summer. The four cast members of “Will & Grace” each got expensive new sports cars following the first year of the skein.

What’s more, if a show takes a dive in the ratings after a star closes a big deal, nobody expects an actor to give back any part of his raise.

“No good deed goes unpunished in this town,” said one top network exec. “Whatever good will you think you’ve built up is frequently forgotten in two or three months.”

Webheads and studio chiefs also accuse actors and their reps of having tunnelvision during renegotiation seasons.

“People forget that these shows are businesses, and you have to run a show like a business,” one exec said. “You’re trying to do the right thing and at the same time look out for the bottom line.”

It doesn’t help that personalities frequently get in the way — on both sides.

“The talent truly can feel they’re being treated unfairly. This is their one big shot (to get rich), and they don’t want to be denied,” said one observer. “And the networks and studios feel betrayed because they feel they played a hand in casting these people, giving them their break and helping them get where they are.

“It’s all just a crazy situation.”