'Modern Family's Big Salary Negotiations
Exclusive: TV's top comedy cast asks for more for season four.
Hollywood is gearing up for what could be one of the toughest -- and highest-stakes -- TV contract renegotiations in years.
With third-season production on ABC's top-rated and Emmy-winning comedy Modern Family ending in early March, representatives for the series' six adult castmembers have begun formulating a plan to negotiate significantly higher salaries with producer 20th Television, according to multiple sources.
Castmembers Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet and Sofia Vergara were paid in the $65,000-an-episode range for the 22-episode third season, according to sources, a fee that was bumped up from the first two seasons last summer. (Stonestreet was making about $20,000 an episode for the first season, when he won an Emmy, one of 11 wins for the series.) Ed O'Neill, who came to Modern Family after success on Married … With Children and other series, makes in the $105,000 range per episode, plus a small backend he receives for agreeing to cut his quote to join the series in 2009. (O'Neill was considered the "get" when Modern Family was casting, taking on the patriarch role when Craig T. Nelson passed.)
Now the series is heading into its all-important fourth season, when casts often renegotiate their contracts, scoring big paydays in exchange for agreeing to extend original seven-year deals by an additional year or two so the studio can generate bigger syndication revenue. One source suggested the cast could ask for a jump to the $200,000-an-episode range for season four, which would be on par with the three stars of CBS' The Big Bang Theory when they re-upped after their show's third season in 2010. Reps will seek additional boosts of $50,000 to $100,000 for subsequent seasons, but 20th is likely to resist opening the vault for a cast with twice as many leads as the Big Bang trio.
"It's going to get ugly," says a source close to the dealmaking.
To be sure, the show is a profit center for its studio and network. Modern Family reinvigorated a comedy genre many had left for dead. The show regularly draws 13.7 million viewers, up 12 percent from a year earlier, and a 5.9 rating among the coveted 18-to-49 viewers, according to Nielsen. In 2011, Modern Family generated $164 million in ad revenue for ABC, up 40 percent year-over-year, according to Kantar Media.
Still more impressive: The show has become TV's No. 1 scripted series among younger viewers and is the highest-rated comedy since Friends and Will & Grace. Since its 2009 launch, Modern Family has formed the basis for a Wednesday comedy block, helping to seed other ABC comedies from Happy Endings to the upcoming Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23.
Following Modern Family's breakout first season in 2010, 20th inked a rich syndication deal with USA Network -- its first major sitcom acquisition -- for a license fee close to $1.5 million an episode, according to sources. The eye-popping sum was roughly on par with a deal struck by TBS and Warner Bros. for Big Bang repeats. Modern Family is poised to bring in millions more from broadcast stations when the series rolls out in syndication in 2013, and foreign revenues said to be especially robust.
20th won't be alone in the negotiations with the cast. ABC will be involved because its licensing arrangement with the studio provides that the network fund production of later seasons of the show. That means that any substantial salary increases agreed to by 20th eventually would be paid for by the network toward the end of the series run.
The question now is whether the Modern Family cast will negotiate together, much as the stars of Friends famously did. (Each jumped to $100,000 after the second season and later scored $1 million an episode plus backend for the final season on NBC.)
O'Neill so far has declined to join his co-stars, though a source says strategy talks among the representatives are just beginning and negotiations likely will stretch into the summer. One option on the table is to demand commensurate percentage increases, which would benefit O'Neill proportionally and allow the cast to present a united front (similar to their Emmy strategy of submitting each adult actor in the supporting category).
Reps for 20th and the actors declined comment, but the prospect of a big-ticket renegotiation amid generally declining TV salaries is welcome news to the talent community. "There are always going to be those exceptions, and Modern Family is an exception," says Gersh senior managing partner Leslie Siebert, who was integral in renegotiating on Friends and Will & Grace, whose four leads successfully banded together. "If it were me, I would make sure all of the adults stick together and go in for a whopping upfront salary and whopping participation. That backend participation is the clincher because that [means money for] the rest of your life."