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‘Seinfeld’ Renewal Headed for Wire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Seinfeld” is offering a cliffhanger ending this season, just not the kind viewers will see.

This particular plot, in fact, seems more suited to “Dallas” or “Dynasty,” involving high-stakes corporate intrigue, drama and even a little suspense.

Negotiations are expected to continue down to the wire on “Seinfeld"--television’s most watched series--as executives work to close deals with supporting actors Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards before NBC announces next season’s prime-time lineup on May 12.

Those close to the discussions say they don’t expect a resolution until within days or perhaps hours of that deadline.

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“Nothing’s going to happen until May,” said one source, comparing the situation to more conventional labor disputes, which seemingly “have to have the clock ticking” before the parties make any progress.

Few conventional labor negotiations, of course, involve such astronomical sums. Reports have indicated that the three co-stars initially sought $1 million per episode--equaling what star, producer and co-creator Jerry Seinfeld is expected to receive, which translates to more than $20 million over an entire year. The last counter-offer was said to be around $300,000.

“Seinfeld” is a gold mine for NBC, with the network charging more than $1 million for each minute of advertising within the show. Higher fees would cut into that profit, but the program remains enormously valuable to the No. 1 network, providing the means to introduce and promote new programs to more than 30 million viewers each week.

Though the parties remain at an impasse, some insiders say incentives are so strong on both sides that it’s inevitable they will reach an agreement.

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“I don’t think NBC can afford to lose the show,” said one television executive, adding that it also behooves the actors to reap the rewards of “one more year of this big gravy train.”

Others aren’t quite so sure, saying it’s conceivable the deal could fall apart entirely. Parties on all sides either declined comment or couldn’t be reached, but another meeting on the matter is scheduled for later this week.

Beyond the star salaries is where corporate intrigue enters the picture, as this particular negotiation demonstrates the combination of politics and influence at work in assembling a network’s prime-time schedule.

That equation could become more complicated now that Castle Rock Entertainment, which produces “Seinfeld,” is part of the Time Warner empire, thanks to the company’s merger last year with Turner Broadcasting.

Another Time Warner unit, Warner Bros. Television, supplies NBC its other Thursday-night heavyweights, “ER” and “Friends.” The half-hour slots between those three shows are the most coveted real estate in television, virtually ensuring a show significant tune-in.

Warner Bros. makes the Brooke Shields series “Suddenly Susan,” which has occupied one of those Thursday slots this season and already has been renewed for next year. The company is also responsible for a new sitcom starring “Cheers” alumna Kirstie Alley, from the producers of “Friends.”

If Warner Bros. has its way, both those shows could turn up next fall on Thursdays, meaning Time Warner would provide NBC’s entire “Must See TV” arsenal--potentially giving the studio considerable leverage over NBC’s scheduling decisions. (Castle Rock has other chips in play as well, producing two marginally rated NBC comedies, “The Single Guy” and “Boston Common.”)

Tradition holds that producers of hit series at least get a crack at a good time period for their next project. NBC officials, however, have stressed in the past that they must remain the final arbiters of where programs are scheduled, without being constrained by such obligations.

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NBC learned that lesson the hard way in the late 1980s, when Paramount (which produced “Cheers”) and Carsey-Werner (“The Cosby Show”) extracted key time periods for their other shows as part of renewing those hits. The shows didn’t measure up, however, and ratings plummeted, dropping NBC from first to third place.

As a result, NBC doesn’t want a single company to hold such sway over its Thursday lineup, especially when its current prime-time dominance relies so heavily on that night. Moreover, looking ahead, NBC will have to go through another renewal dance with the studio next year on “ER,” which is heading into its fourth season.

“The idea of Warner Bros. controlling their prime night is scary,” said an executive at another network, adding, “There’s a worse nightmare: Not having that [lineup].”


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