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Parties Close to a Deal on 'West Wing,' Sources Say

NBC will triple what it pays Warner Bros. per episode, despite the show's ratings decline.

January 14, 2003|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

Liberal politicians may find their stock dropping in Republican Washington. But NBC is apparently about to triple what it pays Warner Bros. Television for a weekly dose of President "Jed" Bartlet & Co.

After locking up a yearlong extension of "Friends" before Christmas, NBC and Warner are close to a deal that would renew "The West Wing" for as many as three seasons.

Sources say the network, owned by General Electric Co., and the AOL Time Warner Inc. production unit have been in discussions, hoping to secure an agreement before Saturday, when NBC is scheduled to meet with TV critics and reporters in Hollywood.

Terms remain in flux, and all parties involved declined to comment; however, sources close to the negotiations say the network probably will compensate Warner Bros. for past production deficits and significantly boost the per-episode license fee over the $2 million that it currently pays.

Although various figures still are being bandied about, the deal probably will be tied in part to the show's ratings performance, and, depending on how it's calculated, will be worth $5 million to $7 million per episode.

Whatever the final price, the program's value clearly dropped from what it might have garnered before its fourth season began in September. Viewing of "The West Wing" has fallen to the lowest levels since the show premiered in 1999 -- particularly among the young-adult demographics coveted by advertisers -- against such competition as ABC's staged reality show "The Bachelor."

As recently as last summer, there was speculation "The West Wing" could command as much as $10 million an hour, with other networks bidding for it. However, interest apparently cooled along with the show's ratings.

In that respect, the negotiations represent a converse of what happened when NBC renewed "ER" several years ago. The network deferred closing a deal and lost negotiating leverage. The result was a then-record price of $13 million per episode. Both series are produced by Warner Bros. in conjunction with producer John Wells.

"The West Wing" nevertheless remains an extremely prestigious property, having won three consecutive Emmys as best dramatic series, along with a writing Emmy and several nominations for the show's creator, Aaron Sorkin. The show also appeals to less frequent, better educated and more affluent TV viewers -- an alluring market for blue-chip advertisers.

"Despite its audience erosion, 'The West Wing' maintains several advantages, including NBC's continued interest in offering Emmy-caliber programming," said John R. Rash, senior vice president and director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithun, a Minneapolis-based advertising agency. "It still attracts a sizable audience of viewers who don't regularly tune in NBC fare."

Even at a more modest fee than what might have been, Warner Bros. stands to make a tidy profit on the show. Rerun rights were sold in 2001 for more than $1 million per episode to Bravo, the cable network NBC agreed to acquire in November for $1.25 billion. Most key cast members already have negotiated contracts covering the duration of the deal.

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