Paying for It

It's development season. Over lunch, a senior network executive is bemoaning skyrocketing talent costs, especially if the actor has any big-screen cred. “People are going crazy,” he says. “NBC Universal is paying Aidan Quinn like $125,000 or $135,000 an episode. Nothing against the guy, but it's gotten to the point where you have to pay six figures for Aidan Quinn.”

Signed to appear in a drama called Book of Daniel, about a priest who's hooked on prescription drugs and chats with a contemporary-looking Jesus, Quinn isn't the only actor cashing in. As it happens, I've had a number of conversations in the past week that turned to the startling money being thrown down for star-power—real or perceived. Other actors with plenty of movie roles on their resumes who are commanding serious money include Chris O'Donnell, slated for Fox's Crazy Lawyers, and Glenn Close, who has joined The Shield. A raft of veterans of successful TV series are looking at deals in the $200,000 per episode range, including Chris Noth, who's reviving his Law & Order character, Det. Mike Logan, on the spin-off Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Benjamin Bratt (who succeeded Noth when he left Law & Order in 1995) can expect a similar pay package as he negotiates a role in a new Pentagon-based drama, E-Ring, being developed by CSI wizards Jerry Bruckheimer and Jonathan Littman for NBC.

Part of what's driving talent salaries skyward is simple supply and demand. The reality-TV craze has ebbed, and breakout scripted shows, from Lost to Desperate Housewives to Medium, have spurred more scripted projects in the development pipeline for next season. Another factor: pure anxiety. Save for ABC, every other broadcast network is either down or flat in its target audience and grabbing at anything that might distinguish a show from the competitive scrum.

“Everybody is looking for that piece of casting that will make their project stand out and help them keep their job,” says a veteran producer with a couple of pilots in development. “Everybody wants that little bit of extra prestige, a mark of quality that may be what gets your pilot picked up. People are paying a bigger premium than ever to have it. But don't use my name, because I have to negotiate with these guys and I don't need to sound too willing to pay.”

Some trace the trend to James Spader, who revived The Practice in its final season and ended up starring in the spin-off Boston Public. More than one person I spoke with talked about the “Gary Sinise effect.” An actor's actor, but hardly a marquee name, Sinise was lured to CSI: N.Y. by an estimated $175,000 per episode deal. That juiced the price for a lot of talent migrating from feature film to TV. “More often than not, the message the networks are sending to the producers is, 'get a key name we can sell, even if you have to spend big to get it,'” says another veteran producer.

But not everybody in the game believes it's money well spent, especially when a mix of fear and lack of imagination appears to be driving the spending decisions. “This isn't a knock against Gary Sinise, who is a wonderful actor, and the show he's on is a hit,” says Oz and Homicide creator Tom Fontana, currently working on pilots for CBS and the WB. “And backing up the Brinks truck to pay Chris Noth to help out Criminal Intent, I can understand how that happens. But too often the networks and studios are allowing what people get paid to get totally out of hand. How many actors are there who the public is going say, 'I absolutely have to watch that show because Aidan Quinn is in it'? Then the studios and networks who create the climate go and moan that everything costs too much money.”

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