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NBC’S TINKER POSES HIS ‘PEACE’ PLAN

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Times Staff Writer

When Grant Tinker, NBC chairman, speaks of ways to “achieve peace in our time,” he’s not talking about the Mideast or U.S.-Soviet relations.

The war Tinker alludes to is between, on one side, the major film-and-television studios, which churn out prime-time series whose costs have far outstripped their price tags, and on the other side, the Big Three--NBC, ABC and CBS--who claim they’re paying all they can for those series.

Tinker has a solution, which he proposed Tuesday before a record lunchtime audience of about 1,000 Hollywood Radio and Television Society members: Let the networks share in some of the huge profits the studios earn when they resell network hits to other buyers, such as non-network stations or cable superstations.

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He also named as principal warmonger Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America and the studios’ chief cheerleader. Valenti’s congressional lobbying on the studios’ behalf threatens to undermine peaceful negotiations, Tinker said.

“This is one instance in which the MPAA . . . might best serve our television business by butting out,” Tinker said. “If we have to reinvent the way we do business together, it’s an effort worth making.” Business negotiations, not the governmental judgment advocated by Valenti, will result in “a workable agreement.”

“And then we’ll be out between the rock and the hard place, where we’ve been stuck tight,” Tinker added.

In this particular war, the viewer is the ultimate loser. As the gap between network payments and actual production costs widens, some studio heads say, movie-quality hourlong dramas could disappear off the face of the tube.

Already, for the upcoming fall season, one show has gone into limbo (“The Ultimate Adventure Co.” from “Magnum, P.I.” producer Don Bellisario), one faced a change of identity (“Miami Vice,” which Universal Pictures threatened to move to Burbank) and several have made voluntary trims. Tinker, whose 37 years in broadcast programming and whose calm, effective handling of NBC give him an elder statesman quality, summed up both sides of the conflict in his Tuesday talk:

The Hollywood production community believes that the networks “drive up costs with unrealistic and unreasonable demands--for script rewrites, for too much re-shooting, for action sequences, for exotic locations, for bidding up the price of star talent, for program delivery on impossible deadlines.”

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Meanwhile, in the New York executive offices of the Big Three networks, “the popular wisdom is that the producers have a lot of fat in their budgets, too many people on the payroll, numerous excesses above and below the line.”

Neither story, Tinker said, is completely true.

But neither, some studio executives said, when contacted after the speech, is Tinker’s representation of himself as the peacemaker of record completely accurate. Tinker, noting that he has served on both sides of the fence (as president of MTM Enterprises, he provided the networks with such shows as “Mary Tyler Moore” and “The Bob Newhart Show”; “Hill Street Blues” was developed under his tenure there) and would soon be returning to independent production, asked his listeners “to accept my representation as a guy who is interested in the health and welfare of our whole business, not just some particular part of it.”

Commented Robert Daly, Warner Bros. chairman and former president of CBS entertainment: “I wish what he said yesterday he had done last October when we went to the networks and asked to make a deal.”

Daly said that CBS took a much bigger step toward a resolution than NBC or ABC by negotiating a deal with the studios that would have eased the problem of escalating production costs. The deal would have gone into effect for this fall, Daly said, but for NBC’s and ABC’s delay in responding to the studios.

Valenti, contacted on Wednesday, said he has been working toward the same negotiations Tinker wants. “I was the one who went to see high officials at ABC and NBC urging them to talk and let’s discuss these things.” He has not seen “a single congressman” about this issue since negotiations began last fall.

(Valenti, a good friend of Tinker’s and never at a loss for words, at first responded to Tinker’s allegations with typical sarcasm: “I’m sitting here worshipping at my shrines, the gods Mars and Bellona, as I do every day,” a reference to the Roman god and goddess of war.)

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Hollywood executives do agree with Tinker that the problem is critical.

The financial picture at all three networks has changed, with ABC and NBC reporting to new owners (Capital Cities Communications and General Electric, respectively) and CBS still recovering from fighting off a takeover by media mogul Ted Turner. The purse strings have been tightened, even as the studios’ costs and, not coincidentally, audience expectations, have skyrocketed.

In addition, governmental restrictions against the networks owning their own shows expire in 1990. Though industry observers doubt that the networks can begin making all their own shows, the potential threat to the studios’ livelihood brings an immediacy to Tinker’s call for stepped-up negotiations.

There’s little hint, however, that the studios would accept the idea of sharing series ownership with the networks, as Tinker is proposing. Daly said that the CBS deal would resolve many of the problems without giving that network a share of post-network profits.

There are some signs, in fact, that the network-studio conflict might be resolving itself without drastic measures such as Tinker’s.

New markets in video and foreign sales have decreased the financial risk incurred by production companies, thereby making shows more affordable to produce at the networks’ going rate of payment.

“We can live with the fees as they are now structured,” said New World Pictures co-chairman Harry Evans Sloan. New World picked up the tab for NBC’s fall series “Crime Story” after Universal decided it was too expensive to produce. It will recoup its monies on the expensive series in part by selling it as a miniseries in Europe.

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Universal, though maintaining that costs on shows like “Ultimate Adventure Co.” and “Crime Story” are out of the ballpark, has also responded to network-studio battle in a way that could obviate Tinker’s proposal. “We’ve really cut some of the fat out of our production operation,” Robert Harris, president of Universal Television, said.

Harris also suggested that Tinker might have blasted Valenti precisely “because Valenti has been very effective.”

There is also a new wrinkle in the TV business, one that gives the Big Three some competition it never before had. The Fox Broadcasting Co.--FBC--only this month announced a slate of shows that will air on non-network stations in limited time periods starting this fall. And on Wednesday morning, Lorimar-Telepictures, which sells series to the networks, announced its agreement to purchase seven television stations. Like Fox, it, too, will have some place other than NBC, ABC and CBS to sell its shows.

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