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Key cast members of 'Modern Family' sue 20th Century Fox TV

July 24, 2012|By Joe Flint
  • Several cast members of "Modern Family" are suing to get out of their contracts.
Several cast members of "Modern Family" are suing to get out… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

The family that sues together apparently stays together.

Several of the key cast members on the hit TV sitcom "Modern Family" have teamed up to sue 20th Century Fox Television, the studio that makes the show for ABC, claiming their contracts are illegal.

Stars Sofia Vergara, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet, Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell filed suit Tuesday in California Superior Court. The move comes after unsuccessful efforts on their part to renegotiate their deals with the studio. Another star, Ed O'Neill, also is expected to join the suit.

Although the current contracts of the cast run through 2016, the cast has been trying to cut new deals with the studio that would include significant raises. Such negotiations are not unusual in the television industry, particularly on successful shows. In return for bigger paychecks, the cast usually agrees to extend their agreements beyond the usual seven years. 

However, it is rare that talks go from the executive suites to the courtroom. A 20th Century Fox spokesman declined to comment on the suit or whether the studio would follow with its own.

In the suit, the cast members argue that their employment agreements violate California law prohibiting deals that run longer than seven years. This is a common tactic in trying to renegotiate pacts. In the case of the "Modern Family" cast, their contracts are up at the end of June 2016, but all were signed before June 2009.

By teaming up, the six cast members are hoping to gain leverage over 20th Century Fox Television. Casts of other hit shows, including "Friends" and "Seinfeld," have succeeded with that approach in the past.

"Modern Family," an ensemble comedy about three different branches of one family, is that rare breed of critical and commercial hit. Not only has it won the best comedy Emmy two years in a row, it is one of the biggest hits on television. About 13 million viewers tune in to ABC every Wednesday night to watch the show, and many more record it on their digital video recorder for later consumption.

And the show is also a success for 20th Century Fox Television, which sold reruns of the sitcom to cable channel USA at a price tag of roughly $1.5 million per episode.

Most of the cast members of "Modern Family" were unknowns when it made its debut in 2009 and are paid $60,000 to $70,000 an episode. O'Neill, an established TV star, makes more than $100,000 per episode but he too was also seeking a new agreement.

An offer that would have put the salaries of Vergara, Ferguson, Stonestreet, Bowen and Burrell in the $150,000 per-episode neighborhood for the upcoming season with sizable annual increases was rejected, a person at the studio who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter said.

Production on the fourth season of "Modern Family" was due to start Tuesday, but a majority of cast members didn't show up. The child actors on the show -- Rico Rodriguez, Nolan Gould, Sarah Hyland and Ariel Winter -- are not as yet part of the contract dispute. If the talks continue to drag, it could mean that ABC would have to start its season without "Modern Family," but a lot has to happen for that scenario to take place.

"Modern Family" co-creator and executive producer Steve Levitan did not respond to a request for comment.

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