NATPE panel seeks source of costs

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LAS VEGAS -- The reigning chiefs at Hollywood's major TV studios dissected the difficulties of reining in runaway series production costs during a panel discussion Wednesday.

The candid discussion at NATPE laid the blame for the rising expense of broadcast programming on things ranging from vertical integration to the competitive threat of HBO.

"I think people will look back at this era and the production costs and think we were all asleep at the switch," said Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox Television.

The repeal of fin-syn regulations emerged as the main culprit. Panelists agreed that conglomerates are throwing money at series in hopes of yielding hits, which would in turn rain revenue on corporate-aligned networks, studios and station groups alike.

"I don't know if a show like 'Lost,' '24' or 'Heroes' could get made for anybody but an in-house network because of the size or scope of what's expected," Touchstone Television president Mark Pedowitz said.

HBO's success with high-cost hits like "The Sopranos" reset the bar in terms of the production qualities viewers came to expect, Pedowitz remarked.

Bruce Rosenblum, president of Warner Bros. Television Group, pointed the finger at broadcast network executives who have grown accustomed to exorbitant levels of spending. He credited their cable counterparts for being more open to controlling costs, noting that his low-cost production unit Warner Horizons produces the TNT hit "The Closer" for what he described as less than two-thirds the cost of an average broadcast drama.

"The challenge for us as a studio ... is the creative and financial expectations of network execs," Rosenblum said. "They have certain expectations of what a studio needs to spend. They're insisting on it, and that drives the cost of production."

Another set of expectations studios must contend with, panelists noted, is the unwillingness of top-shelf actors, producers and writers to adjust their own salaries to create more modestly budgeted programming.

That won't stop NBC from trying, according to Marc Graboff, West Coast president of NBC Universal Television. He reiterated his network's desire to rely on cheaper programming in the 8 p.m. slot, noting that revenue from 30-second spots aren't likely to remain at their current levels much longer.

"I don't think the ad dollars are going to be there anymore," Graboff said. "We are looking at cable model costs for the 8 o'clock hour that are scripted shows."

To underscore NBC's commitment to lower-cost programming, Graboff said NBC was strongly considering picking up a drama pilot developed at sister cable network USA if USA had passed. The pilot, which he identified as "In Plain Sight," has since been ordered to series by USA and renamed "Mary Sunshine."

When Graboff explained that NBC would have produced the series on a cable budget, Pedowitz politely scoffed at the notion.

"Mark, you're dreaming," he said, offering to bet Graboff $100 that the series would balloon to a broadcast budget. "The expectations of the talent, of the broadcast executive, will weigh across that. Not a chance."

"I'm an idealist," Graboff joked.

Over in Pasadena at NBC's portion of the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour, NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly addressed the peacock's 8 p.m. expectations as well. He said NBC miscommunicated when it originally stated that only unscripted programming would be in that time slot going forward.

"It's not going to be an absolute," Reilly said. "I can guarantee you we are going to have comedy back on Thursday night next year, scripted comedy, and I think it's highly likely you're going to see at least one scripted show somewhere in the 8 o'clock hour for counterprogramming or something that fits."
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