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Has New 'Seinfeld' Pay Standard Unlocked the Bank?

Television: The salaries for three of the show's stars may have raised the scale, but some think it's a special case.

May 16, 1997|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Seinfeld," the crown jewel of NBC's "Must See TV" lineup, became perhaps the most expensive series in TV history with the lucrative deal awarded its supporting cast for next season.

Whether the deal will mark the beginning of "must pay-up TV" is now being debated within television circles.

Some industry lawyers, managers and agents believe the estimated $600,000-per-episode salaries given to Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards--from $300,000 to $500,000 more than what many TV stars make--will open the floodgate for TV actors to seek more money.

They said the impact on the TV industry will be comparable to what happened in the motion picture industry in 1995 when Jim Carrey received a then-unprecedented $20 million to star in "The Cable Guy." Salaries for other stars quickly escalated to the point where Arnold Schwarzenegger last year earned $25 million for just six weeks work playing the villain Mr. Freeze in the upcoming "Batman and Robin."

"This will be just like what happened with Jim Carrey," said Joe Sutton, a manager whose clients include comedian Martin Lawrence. "People and stars will look back on 'Seinfeld' in future years and say, 'They were the first.' It's happened in sports, and it will now happen in television. It's the beginning of the superbucks."

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Added Ernest Del, an attorney with many prominent television clients: "Any development that breaks new barriers, whether it's $20 million or stock options for an actor, always has implications for future talent negotiations. The bottom line is, this development can't hurt and can only help talent. They will argue the precedent, and I certainly will, too. And the studios and the networks will continue to argue it away. It will come down to the leverage and the will of the situation."

But others said the "Seinfeld" deal--in which the three performers will each receive more than $13 million for the season--will have little, if any, effect on television salaries. They pointed out that the circumstances surrounding this particular negotiation were extraordinary: "Seinfeld" is the top-rated comedy on television, star Jerry Seinfeld already had agreed to return, and the contracts of the three co-stars were expiring simultaneously.

"Quite simply, there will be no impact," insisted David Colden, another entertainment attorney. "This was a negotiation in which all of the components will never be repeated again. In the motion picture business when this happened, it went crazy, but this will not happen with the TV industry."

Added Marty Adelstein, a partner with the Endeavor agency: "There will be very little effect, other than raising the ceiling a little higher. This was an extraordinary situation, especially when you look at how much money the show has earned for the network. It's not like people in supporting roles in 'The Nanny' are going to ask for this kind of money."

They noted that "Seinfeld" has been phenomenally profitable for NBC, bringing as much as $500,000 for each 30-second commercial and helping to launch a number of other comedies that NBC has scheduled behind it, including "Caroline in the City," "Suddenly Susan" and "Fired Up." So the added investment for NBC is more than worth the cost.

Colden said the negotiations for salary raises on a top-rated show that is in its ninth year "is virtually unprecedented." He echoed the views of others who said that the quirky characters played by Alexander, Louis-Dreyfus and Richards are equally as important to the show's success as Seinfeld.

As for stars who feel they should be earning as much as the "Seinfeld" cast because they have larger roles in their shows and may be tempted to start demanding more money, Colden said, "The likely response from the network will be, 'You get a show that's No. 1 going into its ninth year, and we will negotiate your contract, too.' "

Alexander, Louis-Dreyfus, Richards and their representatives declined comment. They initially had sought $1 million an episode, and the long-standing negotiations almost came down to the wire as NBC prepared to announce its fall schedule. An accord was reached late last Friday.

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