Ron Leavitt and Michael Moye, the producers of the hit comedy series "Married . . . With Children," are close to signing a deal with Columbia Pictures Television that would catapult the two relatively unknown writers overnight into the ranks of Hollywood's best-paid creative talent.
Leavitt and Moye are now weighing a $32-million, three-year renewal deal with Columbia that includes a significant portion of the syndication profits from "Married" as an enticement to keep them at the studio, according to sources. Columbia produces the show for Fox Broadcasting Co.'s television network.
If Leavitt and Moye accept the offer, it would be the largest studio deal for a television comedy writing team in history, and would represent another move upward in the spiraling fees paid to writers.
The stakes have escalated drastically in what otherwise might have been an uneventful negotiation because Columbia is also rolling out a highly publicized campaign to sell the reruns to "Married . . . With Children" to local television stations.
Depending on how much stations pay for those reruns, Columbia could gross between $124 million and $153 million from "Married" before calculating additional revenue from the sale of advertising time in the show. The final gross could also be higher if the series stays on Fox longer than five years.
Columbia has come under intense pressure to wrap up a deal with Leavitt and Moye because other studios, particularly Disney and Universal, have expressed a strong interest in having the Leavitt-Moye team join them. Although the other studios easily could have afforded a financial package at least as rich as what Columbia has offered, they could not offer an immediate advance against lucrative syndication revenues.
The rerun revenue has become an issue for Leavitt and Moye because, sources said, their current deal did not include participation in the show's rerun income.
"Married . . . With Children" premiered on Fox in April, 1987, as one of the first shows on the then-fledging fourth network. Over the past three years, the show--about the hapless working stiff Al Bundy and his warts-and-all family--has attracted a steadily growing audience, particularly among the young adult viewers prized by advertisers.
In recent weeks about one-fifth of the available audience regularly watches "Married." A 30-second commercial in the show typically sells for $300,000.
Gary Lieberthal, chairman of Columbia Pictures Television, declined to comment on the negotiations. Leavitt and Moye were unavailable for comment, and their agent, Gary Cosay of Leading Artists Agency, also would not comment, other than to say that no deal has been completed. Leavitt and Moye's contract expires in November.
High-stakes bidding is nothing new to Cosay, whose clients include some of the hottest producers and writers in Hollywood. Last year, he negotiated an $18-million, three-year deal on behalf of Neal Marlens and Carol Black, creators and producers of the ABC series "The Wonder Years."
That deal, however, fell apart when Marlens and Black would not submit to some of Universal's demands over "creative" issues.
Universal, a studio traditionally known for its high-gloss, hour-long action/adventure series, was willing to pay such a steep fee in order to break into the comedy area. Studios such as Universal have been losing money on hour-long series because the syndication market for such shows has been soft for several years.
In recents months, the syndication market has been weakening for half-hour comedies as well because a glut of comedies has flooded the market in the wake of the successful "Cosby Show" on NBC. "Cosby" grossed $575 million during its initial push in syndication two years ago and continues to be the standard by which success in rerun sales is measured.
Columbia may also be facing a difficult time selling "Married . . . With Children" reruns because of concern with some broadcasters over the raunchy content of the program.
A couple of advertisers pulled their spots last year when Terry Rakolta, a Michigan housewife who labeled the show "anti-family," launched a national media campaign to publicize the show's supposed raciness.
Although the issue quickly dropped from sight and Fox executives believe that the attack actually may have boosted the show's ratings, "Married" remains a sensitive topic among some advertisers. But Columbia is hoping that the ratings speak louder than critics and skittish advertisers.
In addition, a major factor determining how much "Married" will gross in reruns depends on where stations schedule it. A potentially significant boost will come if stations schedule it in the so-called prime access time period between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.
So far, Columbia has not announced any deals to sell reruns of "Married." Their "floor price"--the minimum bid the studio will accept--has been below that of other recently sold comedies.
In New York, Columbia asked a minimum bid of $115,000 per week, compared to a minimum of $63,000 in Chicago and $70,000 in San Francisco. In those same markets, "Cosby" sold for $240,000 per episode in New York, $110,000 in Chicago and $120,000 in San Francisco.