Money, baby.

by Paul William Tenny

I wrote yesterday about why I think most veteran TV shows eventually go off the air with one very glaring omission: money. I'll let Stargate Atlantis exec producer Joe Mallozzi explain it in his own words answering a question on his blog, which spurred me to write this addendum.
Claimial writes: "Why would MGM or SciFi or whoever is responsible for making these kinds of decisions cancel a show that is doing so great?"

Answer: It all comes down to economics. The longer a show runs, the more expensive it is to produce. When it reaches the point that the costs outweigh the financial benefits, then the plug is pulled. But that's not to say we've reached that point however.

I'm well aware of how that works and I'm sorry to say it simply didn't pop into my mind yesterday while I was writing on this subject. I'm not sure if it's exactly the same way for writers, but when actors have their contracts renewed on a successful series, they almost always get a raise. It's the figurative and literal price a show pays for being able to keep proven talent, and when it doesn't happen, things tend to go badly. A great example of this is Rob Lowe leaving The West Wing in its fourth season.

After the first three years and several Emmy awards later, it was time to re-up the cast. Most of them were making about $30,000 per episode and were upped to $70,000. Rob Lowe, a big name actor whose presence helped to launch the series had started out in that range but wasn't offered a similar bump. With success came the ability to pay most series regulars about the same amount and I guess the producers/network/studio wanted some level of parity amongst the cast. Since everyone but Lowe got a raise, it looked to the world that he wasn't valued as much as the others or that he wasn't worth keeping even though we're talking about bringing the others to a level of quality, so he walked away.

From what I understand, this kind of thing can even be written into an actors contract and is the status quo on most shows. I've heard of similar problems happening with Babylon 5 that resulted in the loss of a regular. Depending on how big the show is, and how big the actors are or have become, this can crush a show if it goes on long enough. At the end of West Wing, I believe Martin Sheen was pulling in excess of $350,000 per episode all by himself with a per-episode budget of nearly $6 million dollars overall. If you're winning Best Drama Emmys and hauling 17 million viewers per week, I guess you can afford to spend that much on a single show, but those costs keep going up every year just as Mallozzi said -- and that's not even addressing the writers, producers, and inflation.

If your audience doesn't scale with your costs, you've either got to purge your own talent or give up the ghost. I wouldn't even want to venture a guess what something like Friends was costing when it went off the air. It seems absurd from an outsiders perspective for people to quit a successful show or have that show taken off the air because of this, but that's Hollywood for you.
in Business, Feature, Television


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