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Disney Lets Pact With TV Hit-Maker Witt Thomas Harris Go to Warner

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Signaling the new realities of TV economics, Walt Disney Studios has declined to renew its contract with the production team responsible for such hit shows as “Golden Girls,” contending that the relationship--which generated hundreds of millions of dollars--no longer makes financial sense.

Witt Thomas Harris Productions instead has signed an exclusive three-year deal with Warner Bros., which the producers say offered them the resources to finance their company’s expansion into the risky filmmaking business.

The firm--made up of Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas and Susan Harris--had been associated with Disney for seven years, becoming its biggest TV hit-maker. In addition to “Golden Girls,” its series include “Blossom,” “Empty Nest” and “Nurses.”

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Disney is trying to come to grips with the eroding economics of the TV syndication business. The sale of reruns into syndication provides a significant part of Hollywood studio profits. But in recent years, the supply of shows has far outstripped demand, driving down the prices that stations are willing to pay.

Now, some studios are trying to back out of or renegotiate costly deals they made during the past few years with producers such as Witt Thomas Harris. Last year, for example, Disney cut a number of ties when it dropped production of hourlong shows, which are almost impossible to sell into syndication.

“It was a good relationship,” Walt Disney Studios Chairman Richard Frank said of Disney’s association with Witt Thomas Harris. “But the economics of this business have changed. . . . At the end of the day, this particular deal did not make sense for Disney--ultimately too costly in our projections.”

Warner Bros., on the other hand, has more avenues of distribution for Witt Thomas Harris shows. Its syndication division is the largest of the major studios. Its parent company, Time Warner, has a big cable TV business.

And Warner Bros. is said to be more receptive to the trio’s movie-making ambitions; they produced “Dead Poet’s Society” and “Final Analysis.”

“It’s not a question of need,” Warner Bros. Chairman Robert A. Daley said. “It’s a question of opportunity.”

Under terms of the agreement, Warner Bros. will finance the entire production budget of Witt Thomas Harris’ series while giving the producers a major portion of the syndication revenues.

That could ultimately prove very rewarding. “Golden Girls” has grossed $288 million in syndication, and “Empty Nest” is projected to hit about $90 million. Typically, top producers collect up to one-third of such revenues; details of Witt Thomas Harris’ deal with Disney have not been disclosed.

Witt Thomas Harris was the core of Disney’s TV division until three years ago, when the studio budgeted more than $100 million to lure other top writers and producers onto the lot. Once a nonentity in prime-time TV, Disney now produces such series as “Dinosaurs” and “Home Improvement,” both on ABC.


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