Okay, now you know the recession is bad when the cast of CSI: Miami has to start clipping coupons.
CBS Paramount is asking the on-air talent on the majority of its dramas to forgo their annual raises and keep their salaries flat next season. (Multiyear contracts typically have standard yearly increases built in.) The unprecedented move, part of an overall cost-cutting measure, is an effort to keep budgets down at the CSIs, NCIS, Numb3rs, and their kin, and prevent further behind-the-scenes layoffs. (CBS dramas produced by outside studios — i.e., Ghost Whisperer, The Mentalist, and Without a Trace — won’t be affected.)
But, as many in the business have pointed out, the gambit is likely to
create as many problems as it solves. For instance, what happens if a
star balks at the idea of maintaining the status quo? "Some [of these
TV] leads won’t accept a freeze," says a showrunner at a rival
network, who adds that while the studio can’t fire them outright, they
can decide not to pick up their contract option at the end of the
season. The likelier scenario, however, is that a cut will be made
somewhere else on the show. "The leverage they will use is ‘Freeze
your already ludicrously high salary, or watch a bunch of your
coworkers lose their jobs.’"
In fact, one exec producer at a CBS Paramount drama is already
preparing for such a worst-case scenario. "If our lead doesn’t accept
the freeze, we will have no choice but to let one of our supporting
actors go," says the exec. "There’s no question that it’s the
second-tier actors who are most vulnerable."
Also, what’s the point of signing a long-term
contract if you’re not going to honor its terms? "It effectively
renders the multiyear contracts meaningless," points out an insider. "But [CBS Paramount] will argue
[that] its actors already treat multiyear contracts as meaningless.
Actors on five-, six-, and seven-year contracts typically come in asking
to renegotiate at year 2 or 3. This would be the same thing, only
Counters a TV agent who has clients on CBS Paramount shows: "Studios
are never obligated to engage in a renegotiation. They do so because
they know it’s the right thing to do on shows that are successful."
Obviously, it’s a debate that could — and probably will — go on ad
infinitum. "There’s no question," chuckles a high-ranking exec at a
rival network, "that there is some deep irony to actors [asking] the
studios to ‘honor the contract’ when they almost never do." A better
solution, the suit suggests, would be to at long last "shut down the
ridiculous renegotiations that actors want to do every year. That seems
like the sane and fair way to get this business back to reality. Two
wrongs don’t make a right — we should all agree to stick to our
original contracts, and if a studio overpaid for someone, they should
just suck it up and make a better deal next time."
That’s assuming there will be a next time. "I don’t think the studio is
playing a game," says one veteran producer. "I think they’re desperate.
Prime-time viewership is way down, and the advertising base is being
devastated by the recession."
"They would be opening a whole Pandora’s box," warns another top talent
agent. "CBS is constantly talking about how well they’re doing. They
can’t have it both ways." Adds a fellow agent: "[CBS Paramount] is not
going to be a place actors are attracted to if they’re not going to
honor their contracts." (A rep for CBS Paramount declined to comment.)
The big question is whether other studios will follow CBS’ lead and
institute their own pay freezes. Reps at NBC Universal and Twentieth
Television insist no such measure is on the table, while a Warner Bros.
spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
So what do you think, folks? Is this the end of network TV as we know
it? Just a blip on the radar (unless you’re an agent)? Do you think
anyone will walk? The mind boggles, so go ahead and think out loud