The prime-time television business, stretched increasingly thin between the conflicting needs of the networks that broadcast shows and the production studios that make them, is starting to crack at the seams. The victims could be future hourlong dramas from the makers of shows like "Magnum, P.I.," "Hill Street Blues" and "Trapper John, M.D."
The problem is the widening gap between what the networks are willing to pay for dramatic or action series and the actual cost of producing those same shows.
Faced with deficits of $300,000 to $500,000 per episode--mounting to $30 million or more before a series' accumulated episodes can be sold at a profit--the film-and-TV studios for the first time are starting to say "no" to network deals.
Universal Television recently turned down a deal that would seem to be a TV executive's dream: a commitment from NBC to air 14 hours of "The Ultimate Adventure Company," a high-ticket, high-action show from "Magnum" executive producer Donald Bellisario, planned for the 1986-87 season.
Also potentially in limbo, sources say, is the new Chicago-based cop show from "Miami Vice" executive producer Michael Mann, which he hopes to call "Crime Story." That one, too, has a high price tag that is several hundred thousand dollars per episode above what the networks typically pay.
A near-casualty was "L.A. Law," the new ensemble show from "Hill Street Blues" co-creator Steven Bochco, also due for a fall start on NBC. Twentieth Century Fox Television President Harris Katleman said that he gave the green light for production only after the network upped its "license fee," the amount it pays the studio for the rights to two broadcasts of each episode.
"Making television programming at the prices the networks have been paying is not as good a business as it used to be," said Universal TV President Robert Harris, who confirmed that the heaviest impact is in one-hour series.
"The deficits we're asked to take are so high that, even with a hit show, your chances of coming out are very slim," Katleman agreed. He added that he is also holding back on two pilots for new series requested by the networks, pending the negotiation for higher license fees.
Officials at other studios expressed similar sentiments, though some asked not to be quoted by name because they are in the middle of delicate and highly competitive negotiations to sell shows for the networks' fall season.
NBC executives contacted declined to be interviewed for this article, because of those same negotiations.
But at CBS, entertainment president B. Donald (Bud) Grant said that the networks cannot afford the 15% to 20% increases in upfront money the studios are asking for. "Over the last three years, I think all three networks have kept costs under control. I don't think you can say the same thing for the studios."
Grant said that, in at least one instance, the gap between what CBS was offering and the studio wanted was so high, "I said, let's forget it."
At the core of this mounting rebellion by producers is the dual nature of the television business. On one side of every deal is one of the three networks--NBC, CBS or ABC. They make money by programming shows that will draw audiences of a size and makeup desirable to sponsors, who pay hefty sums for commercial time (in some cases $225,000 for 30 seconds of air time.)
On the other side are the producers--the major studios plus a handful of independents like Lorimar-Telepictures and MTM Enterprises. Given their weekly deficits, they make money only if they can sell a complete package--100 episodes of a single series is ideal--in "syndication" to stations that air reruns of former network shows during the day or late at night.
The networks say the reason they don't put up all the money for a show to be produced is because the Federal Communications Commission prohibits them from sharing potential long-term profits.
But there is a built-in glitch in the system: Networks like hourlong dramas because they provide easy-to-program blocks that hook viewers for twice as long as a sitcom. Stations building their non-prime-time viewership, however, favor the half-hour series.
The studios until now lived with that problem, knowing that a single hit could make up for all the deficits. But they now fear that, because of a glut of one-hour shows, huge syndication windfalls could have peaked with "Magnum, P.I.," which drew about $1.8 million per episode , total, from all U.S. stations.
The evidence from the television syndication convention that the National Assn. of Television Program Executives held last month in New Orleans strongly supports that notion.
--"Cagney & Lacey," last year's big Emmy-winner, has been sold in only 10 of the more than 200 potential TV markets, according to Scott Towle, president of Orion Television Syndication.