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Networks Seeing Stars

Networks are increasing their spending and pursuing top talent more aggressively this pilot season than in years past, according to producers, casting executives and agents. The moves come as networks like ABC and NBC have increased their comedy-pilot orders and TBS, branding itself as “Very Funny,” has stepped up its originals slate. Among dramas, the networks are seeking the next ensemble hit like Grey’s Anatomy.

Shooting on the pilots in contention for the 2006-07 development season is winding to a close. Dramas generally wrap by the end of March and comedies by mid April. In the meantime, top network executives continue to look at tape, attend casting sessions and participate in live video conferences to ensure the best talent possible is attached to their series.

Leading actors aren’t the only ones benefiting this development season; salaries for the short list of single-camera comedy-pilot directors have also risen. Already well paid, the directors have seen demand for their services grow as networks scramble to cash in on the success of NBC’s single-camera comedy My Name Is Earl; nearly half of the broadcast comedy pilots, such as CBS’ The Weekend, employ Earl’s single-camera shooting.

The networks’ increased willingness to spend concerns some producers. Gavin Polone, who, with partner Jamie Tarses, has three comedies in development for Fox, CBS and TBS next season through his Sony Pictures Television-based company, Pariah, sees mid-level acting talent (especially men) commanding $75,000-plus pilot episode fees. “The networks are pursuing talent more aggressively and with more money,” Polone says. “They’re so desperate to get a more familiar face, especially people known for movies.”

Among those making the transition from film to drama pilots are James Woods, starring as a lawyer in Shark for CBS; Jeff Goldblum, leading the NBC police series Raines; and Anne Heche, as a shrink who flees to Alaska in ABC’s Men in Trees.

With the networks making pilot pickups contingent on casting, Polone, whose pilots lack A-level talent, says it works against the programs. “Talent has been able to jack up its prices, which comes out of the production budgets,” he says. “It’s frustrating, because it takes away from the production value.”

A veteran studio casting executive, who wished not to be identified, says there is major concern on the part of the networks that a pilot won’t fly without the “perfect person” in the lead. The executive says competition is especially fearsome this year; that includes not only top-tier movie actors but also “fresh faces” with a decent track record to star in ensembles.

But a premier Hollywood attorney, whose firm represents a roster of top- and mid-level talent, thinks networks and studios are doing the right thing by writing the big checks. “We haven’t seen a lot of downward pressure on talent pilot salaries like in past years,” says the attorney, who also asked not to be named. And with “great writing and good acting” serving as the keys to any good TV show, he adds, “talent is not the place to save money.”

Along with more comedy-pilot orders from the broadcast networks, Sony Pictures Television has stepped up its cable sitcom development, with eight lower-cost comedy pilots in the works for TBS.

Original cable dramas also continue to rise, and with so much competition for talent, say casting executives, it’s no time to be timid. “It’s certainly hard to take the position that we’re going to hold onto the money and let the cards fall where they may,” the casting exec says. “Someone is going to step up, so it’s hard to make the argument that the price is too high.”

But agents contend that most of the big money is going to a narrow group of familiar faces, such as Woods. With the big-name talent getting big sums, some “mid-list” clients are lucky to get $20,000 for a pilot. And often, say agents, their midrange clients have to agree to cut their salaries. Some lead actors that fall into the “B” range command $40,000-$60,000.

Agents are also saying that the lack of diversity has further diminished the available talent pool. “It used to be there were younger, middle-aged and CBS comedies,” says one. “Now they all want sole male leads in the 28-35 age range and, outside of ensembles, parents in their late 40s, maybe 50-55, with a daughter to cover the demos. As for ensembles, good-looking guys in their 20s.”

Casting executives say writers have been turning out fewer spec scripts with demanding lead roles, since networks have cut back on pilots featuring sole leads. When networks do seek out stars to lead a show, executives say, they want to know who it is early in the development process.

Perhaps that explains why there are more comedy ensembles now than in years past. “There is a finite number of people to carry a show by itself,” a casting executive says.

The ensemble trend is present in the drama slate, too. The runaway success of Lost and Grey’s Anatomy has spurred more ensembles, which makes it easier to get those pilots cast. “Not everyone is a leading person,” the casting executive says. “That allows for a certain punch in the cast, a romantic lead, someone to provide the humor.”

Development season has lacked one overriding trend among dramas (conspiracy programs and soaps are some minor ones), which TV executives largely attribute to the success this past year of series that fall across multiple genres. Beyond ensembles like Lost and ABC’s Desperate Housewives, Fox’s medical series House, which stars Hugh Laurie, demonstrates that programs with a single main lead are working, too.

After the fall scheduling decisions are made in mid May, network executives hope that their strategy of aggressively courting big-name talent translates into big-name hits.