The stars of "Mad About You" have picked up mad money and then some, agreeing to another year of the hit NBC comedy that reportedly will pay them each in the neighborhood of $1 million an episode.
The deal announced Monday provides further evidence of the television networks' desperation to hang onto popular programs, while securing another key component of NBC's prime-time lineup for next season, albeit at a steep price.
While the parties wouldn't comment on terms, industry sources say series stars Paul Reiser and Oscar winner Helen Hunt will both earn more than $20 million for 22 episodes next season--the show's seventh and presumably its last. Those salaries will be covered by the fee NBC pays to production company Columbia TriStar Television.
Various factors increased Reiser and Hunt's negotiating leverage. With "Seinfeld" coming to an end in May, top-rated NBC could ill afford to lose another established series if the network wants to retain that status--proving as much when the network cemented a staggering $13-million-per-episode agreement in January for its smash medical drama "ER."
In addition, Hunt's feature film career has taken off with her Academy Award-winning performance in "As Good as It Gets" and her starring role in the blockbuster "Twister," giving the two-time Emmy Award winner for the series the option of leaving to pursue movies full time.
NBC reportedly agreed to concessions that will allow Hunt to adjust her schedule if she is working on a movie. A lesser incentive may be the opportunity to direct more episodes of the series, after she directed her first this season.
Though NBC balked at the stars' asking price initially, most industry observers anticipated the network would ultimately do what was necessary to close the deal.
"This was an agent's dream," observed one industry veteran.
Reiser and Hunt had stated that their decision whether to continue would rest on whether the show could remain fresh creatively, as opposed to financial considerations.
"It comes down to Helen and I going in a room and saying, 'What do you think?' " Reiser said in a January interview.
With an average audience of 14.3 million people a week, "Mad About You" remains one of the core programs NBC uses at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. trying to funnel viewers from one show into the next. Even without "Seinfeld," NBC still has three proven series--"Mad About You," "Frasier" and "Friends"--to anchor its Tuesday and Thursday comedy blocs next season, with "3rd Rock From the Sun" and "Just Shoot Me" as the leading candidates to fill the fourth position.
In a broader sense, however, the major networks face a serious dilemma: With their ratings declining, bona fide hits have become increasingly scarce, causing the cost of renewing such programs to climb even as ratings dwindle.
"Home Improvement" star Tim Allen also cashed in for next season thanks to that dynamic, with reports that he'll earn $1.25 million an episode. Jerry Seinfeld was the first actor to breach the $1-million barrier, and both he and Reiser also share handsomely in profits from the sale of rerun rights as co-creators of their series.
Despite her budding film career, Hunt would be hard-pressed to approach the sum she'll make from the series next year working exclusively in features.
"Mad About You" drew modest ratings airing after "Seinfeld" on Wednesday nights when the show premiered in 1992. The series subsequently ran on Saturdays, Thursdays and Sundays before settling into its current 8 p.m. Tuesday slot last season.
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Weekend Box Office*--*
Weekend Gross/ Screens/ Weeks in Movie (Studio) Total (millions) Average Release 1. "Titanic" $17.2 3,169 14 (Paramount) $494.5 $5,417 2. "Primary Colors" $12.0 1,965 1 (Universal) $12.0 $6,130 3. "The Man in the Iron Mask" $11.1 3,101 2 (MGM/UA) $34.5 $3,572 4. "Wild Things" $9.6 2,177 1 (Sony/Columbia) $9.6 $4,420 5. "U.S. Marshals" $7.2 2,817 3 (Warner Bros.) $43.6 $2,565 6. "Mr. Nice Guy" $5.2 1,463 1 (New Line) $5.2 $3,589 7. "Good Will Hunting" $4.0 1,805 16 (Miramax) $115.6 $2,231 8. "As Good as It Gets" $3.3 1,604 13 (Sony/TriStar) $125.8 $2,032 9. "The Wedding Singer" $3.3 2,065 6 (New Line) $68.4 $1,576 10. "The Big Lebowski" $1.8 1,123 3 (Gramercy) $13.8 $1,630
SOURCE: Exhibitor Relations Co.