In the latest iteration of one of television’s oldest preseason traditions, the actor Brad Garrett, of the CBS comedy “Everybody Loves Raymond,” did not show up to work last week in a bid to wangle a higher salary.
The show went into production anyway. Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS Television, ordered the first script of the soon-to-begin “Raymond” season to be rewritten, excluding Mr. Garrett’s character, according to executives involved with the show.
Such is how these confrontations usually play out. The actor does not come to work because he wants the show to suffer without his presence. Then the network orders the show to go on without him, hoping to ratchet up the pressure by proving that no actor is indispensable.
The networks’ version of hardball has usually prevailed in recent years. But this year’s preseason ritual has a twist. Several executives at different networks said this year had seen more holdouts. Though the executives declined to name names, they said the networks had been more accommodating to the demands of some actors and their agents.
One reason for this changing balance of power: the increasingly desperate desire of networks to hold on to what has become the rarest, most precious resource in television: the hit comedy. As Warren Littlefield, an independent producer who encountered dozens of actor holdouts in his eight years running NBC Entertainment, put it: “The value of success, which is harder to achieve than ever before, is greater than ever before.”
No new comedy has generated bona fide hit ratings in at least five years. And networks are going to greater and greater lengths to keep the comedies that do perform decently. The most publicized example: NBC significantly increased the salaries of the “Friends” cast members in each of the last three seasons, just as the show seemed headed for its last episode.
CBS is in a similar position with “Raymond,” by far the network’s best-rated comedy. CBS is seeking to extend the show at least through a ninth year, which would be the 2004-2005 season. But its star, Ray Romano, has already indicated that he wants this to be his last year.
Mr. Romano’s own contract situation ignited the present conflict. He signed a one-year deal that will pay him the biggest salary in television history, more than $1.5 million an episode.
Just as the show was beginning production last week, three other members of the cast, including Patricia Heaton, who plays Mr. Romano’s wife, called in sick.
While some quiet progress has been made with the other cast members, enough to get them back on the sound stage, Mr. Garrett went public. He complained about the disparity between his salary, estimated at $150,000 an episode, and Mr. Romano’s.
In some ways, the real-life situation resembles a theme of the show, in which Mr. Garrett plays the sad sack Robert, forever jealous of his more popular brother, Ray.
But Mr. Garrett has some reason to be concerned. Before Mr. Romano made his one-year deal, Mr. Garrett and the other cast members had signed new two-year deals, with the hefty salary increases in the final year. Ms. Heaton, for example, will make from $11 million to $12 million if there is a ninth season, according to two executives who are aware of her deal. Her current salary puts her at about $10 million a year.
That second year is now at risk if Mr. Romano walks away. And he can afford to do so. Unlike the other cast members, Mr. Romano is one of the show’s creators and owns a percentage of the show’s profits. Already a success in syndication, “Raymond” is likely to generate hundreds of millions in profits for years to come.
Even if the dispute is resolved, there could be other repercussions. Mr. Moonves had publicly speculated that he might try to keep the show going even without Mr. Romano, perhaps as a spin-off for Mr. Garrett. But Mr. Moonves might not want to do more business with Mr. Garrett, who twice before has sought and won pay raises. Mr. Moonves declined to comment on the situation.
But CBS’s hunger for a comedy hit could offset any anger that CBS executives feel toward Mr. Garrett. “Les may say today that this has made him lose interest in a spinoff, but if he really believes a spinoff with Brad Garrett will work, he’ll find a way,” said Garth Ancier, a longtime program executive who is now with Time Warner as a consultant for CNN and the WB network.
Mr. Ancier added that this year had been an unusually busy one for actor holdouts. “This is beyond anything I’ve seen before,” he said.
He speculated that the networks’ huge success in the spring, when they pulled in a record total of more than $9 billion in advance sales from advertisers, known as upfront sales, had opened the floodgates of renegotiation.
Last year the networks could say they were under economic pressure and were holding the line on raises, Mr. Ancier said. “Now the actors see the strong upfront and the economy recovering. So they say to their agents: `Let’s go get that money back.’ ”
CBS is in more of a bind than HBO was last March, when James Gandolfini staged a walkout from “The Sopranos,” and the HBO chairman, Chris Albrecht, ordered production to be shut down at the start of the show’s new season. If Mr. Gandolfini did not return, living up to his existing contract, the show would be canceled, Mr. Albrecht said.
“CBS can’t really do what we did and shut down the show,” Mr. Albrecht said. “They’ve presold the show to advertisers.”
Mr. Gandolfini eventually returned, and several executives said that he later received a raise.
Brad Grey, an executive producer on “The Sopranos” who was instrumental in resolving the dispute, has also represented actors’ interests in numerous contract disputes.
“It’s never in anyone’s best interest to lose a key element of a show,” Mr. Grey said. “You have to remember the old show business adage: `Never walk away from a hit.’ ”
Indeed, actors’ holdouts have generally resulted in agreements, with both sides amicably making more episodes. Network executives eagerly point out that when the conflicts have not been resolved, bad things have happened to actors’ careers. David Caruso, for example, talked his way out of the ABC hit “NYPD Blue” after one season, looking for a major movie career. It never happened. Now he’s happily back on a hit series, “C.S.I. Miami.”
Mr. Littlefield said the most effective holdouts had come when actors banded together.
He cited the example of “Seinfeld,” where the three supporting actors united in their salary demands. NBC eventually paid the “Seinfeld” supporting players, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards, $600,000 an episode, then a record for nonlead performers.
No group has negotiated more effectively than the “Friends” stars, who have stuck together as six equals in each renegotiation. Mr. Ancier, who was running NBC Entertainment when the first “Friends” salary crisis hit, said, “At some point we were drawing a line in the sand.” It was May 2001 and the cast was unsigned, just four days before NBC would have to announce a new fall schedule to advertisers in New York.
Mr. Ancier said the network had offered each star $700,000 an episode, a noteworthy increase from the $150,000 they had each been making. Warner Brothers, the studio that produces the series, kicked in another $50,000 an episode. The “Friends” cast turned the offer down.
“They wanted $1,050,000 million an episode,” Mr. Ancier said. NBC would not budge and tried to find some way to convince the cast members and their representatives that it was not bluffing. Mr. Ancier said he arranged for an on-air promotion that would label the next week’s episode, the last one scheduled for that season, as the series finale. “It said, `See how it all ends, this week on `Friends,’ ” Mr. Ancier said,
He showed the promotion to some of the cast’s agents, saying it would go on the air starting at noon the next day. NBC also put together an alternate schedule it could present to the advertisers in the upfront session, set for a few days away, and made sure the “Friends” cast learned of it.
“It spooked the cast so much, we got calls that they were ready to negotiate,” he said. The deal closed just before the upfront announcement. “Once you’re really willing to walk away, people react,” Mr. Ancier said.
But none of these decisions can be made with impunity, Mr. Littlefield said. “You can at some point hurt yourself with the audience,” if a show changes too much because a crucial character has been erased after a salary dispute. “But nobody is bigger than the show,” he said.
He mentioned an actor on a hit show produced by one of the television’s most successful program creators, Steven Bochco. The actor was demanding more money and Mr. Littlefield expressed his concerns to Mr. Bochco.
“Steven said: `Warren, he’s an actor and he will fold like the cheap umbrella he is.’ “