Fourth Estate: Star Struck

Nowadays the financial fate of the networks is determined by the stars. Not the celestial kind–the Hollywood kind.
NBC, for example, has to pay newly minted Oscar-winner Helen Hunt $1 million an episode for Mad About You, a show whose ratings can’t compete with Seinfeld. Still, the network couldn’t afford to lose it. NBC also had to cough up $13 million for every episode of ER to Warner Bros., its producers, up from $2 million last season. Now there’s talk that Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer is underpaid. The star of NBC’s classiest sitcom earns a paltry $250,000 per show.
Ah, yes, these are desperate times for the nets. Once, they expected a 15 share; today, they’re happy with a 6 or 7. And profits have suffered, too, eaten away by huge programming costs. Add the millions shelled out for affiliate compensation and the Big Three cry uncle.
So what’s the new strategy for retaining healthy profits? Star power–with a twist. Instead of solely relying on celebrity names in front of the camera, the nets are recruiting names behind the camera.
Here’s the roll call: Martin Scorsese has a two-year directing deal with ABC; Kevin Williamson of Scream fame is at WB; Sydney Pollack is the man behind the camera at CBS’ Bronx County; Barry Levinson is producing CBS’ The Family Brood; Barry Sonnenfeld is lensing Fantasy Island for NBC; and Fox signed Kenneth “Baby Face” Edmonds to bring Soul Food to TV.
“They’re looking for fresh blood,” says Audrey Steele, senior vice president of research for Zenith Media. “There’s a recognition that behind the scene, talent makes a hit.”
Many advertisers and industry observers say this is a smart move. After all, the current system is cost prohibitive. Writers create a show. The show becomes a hit. Suddenly, a frenzied bidding war takes place, where even low-level writers become as valuable as a Princess Diana dress. The writers are then signed to multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts.
Yet very few writers–outside of a David Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice), Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (Designing Women, Evening Shade) or David Angell and Peter Casey (Frasier, Wings and Cheers)–manage to eek out more than one hit. Big money, poor showings.
And aside from being locked up in development deals with studios, many of these writers tire of the comedy-writing assembly line or are better suited to one type of project. In short, you don’t hire a master French chef to work in a Chinese restaurant.
“Finding a writer is like casting a star,” notes comedy writer Mark Simone.
“Larry Gelbart was the perfect writer for M*A*S*H because he was a liberal, anti-war activist whose voice matched the sensibility of Alan Alda.” Similarly, Larry David’s voice was the perfect match for Jerry Seinfeld’s.
“Hollywood often says, ‘You’ve been a successful TV writer. You can write anything.’ That’s not true.”
“Film is traditionally a director’s medium,” Susanne Daniels, WB’s executive vice president of programming told The Hollywood Reporter. “For instance, you can’t tell who the screenwriter was who did Scream, but you see it advertised as a Wes Craven movie. For Dawson’s Creek, we’re able to market it as a show by Kevin Williamson.”
In fact, WB made Williamson an offer he couldn’t refuse: Write about whatever you want. The net result? Dawson’s Creek is Williamson’s high school memories–and one of the freshest, most successful new hits this season.
“It’s the same for Joss Whedon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Daniels adds. “He’s most known for writing Toy Story, but Pixar, the film’s production company, gets the attention. There’s much more personal satisfaction in television.”
“Ultimately, it’s about the most interesting work,” says Tom Fontana, executive producer and creator of HBO’s Oz and partner with director Barry Levinson in NBC’s Homicide and CBS’ upcoming Fresh Blood. Clearly, many film writers, directors and producers have pet projects that aren’t suitable for film.
“TV is a way to reach a huge audience and do projects that don’t fit into the movies,” says Barbara DeFina, who co-produces Scorsese. “There’s always been an interest in branching out.”
“Television is an exciting medium,” adds Scorsese. “Through it, you can deal with many important and controversial subjects. We’re challenged by this opportunity.”
So are advertisers.
“This season has proven that shows don’t only have to be good, they have to be good and different to succeed,” says Paul Schulman of the Paul Schulman Co. “Look at Ally McBeal and Dharma & Greg. You don’t need a big name on the show. The networks have gone after the big stars because they believe a name will get the show sampled.”
Everyone knows that former TV stars such as Helen Hunt, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams and Sally Field have taken Oscar home. Now Hollywood is finding TV respectable. CBS is gambling on Tom Selleck’s midseason replacement, The Closer, and Melanie Griffith in Me & George this fall to bring home the bacon.
“We will pay premiums for the few hits and whatever the increases the networks are paying for them,” Steele says. And the proof is in the rate card.
Adam Buchman, TV editor for the New York Post, points out that when NBC demanded $2 million a spot for the Seinfeld finale, advertisers initially balked. “It’s a supply-and-demand marketplace,” says Buchman. “There’s not much they can do. Competitors are waiting in the wings. Even if the price came down to $1.7 million, it’s still more than the Super Bowl.”
After all, everyone wants a hit. And while big Hollywood names can’t guarantee success, they do have the home court advantage. Look at the possibilities for Scorsese’s two-year deal with ABC. He’ll launch a weekly drama, a miniseries and a made-for-TV movie. Since he has relationships with Joe Pesci, Robert DeNiro, Daniel Day-Lewis and Jodie Foster, he may cast them in one of his TV projects, a promotional bonanza for struggling ABC.
Indeed, Scorsese’s first production will be a one-hour drama in 1999 written by Goodfellas writer Nick Pileggi, who also is the co-executive producer of CBS’ Michael Hayes. Big names, however, carry big risks. To combat the potential inexperience of some of these top-gun recruits, the networks are teaming directors with experienced TV producers who can execute their vision. The reason?
Mistakes are costly and television is littered with failed attempts.
Case in point: Fox’s The Visitor. The show was hyped as the creation of Independence Day writers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. TV veteran John Masius was hired to oversee the show. But the quick pace of TV, which requires an assembly-line type of production, proved too quick a pace for the film writers, and the drama lacked consistency. Plus, they were splitting time with other projects. The nets console themselves with the thought that for every Roland Emmerich, there’s a possible Kevin Williamson waiting in the wings.
Of course, TV executives are still courting new voices. But of the 39 new shows launched last September, the hits were few and far between. The networks are hoping that in ’98, their Hollywood gamble pays off.

–Jill Brooke is a correspondent for CNN. ndent for CNN.