Why the 'Modern Family' Cast Should Get Paid Right Now

The Whole 'Family'
Kevin Parry

While the writers, including Levitan, often find inspiration for Modern Family from their own experiences with their loved ones, Julie Bowen (Claire) had very strong (read: funny) feelings about Phil's upcoming Disneyland outing in which he gets sick on a roller coaster really being based on events from her life. After Levitan put the kibosh on her theory, on-screen husband Burrell came to her defense. "It waaaaaas," he said to laughs. Added Ed O'Neill (Jay): "Fizbo the Clown in the gas station was me … but it didn't end that way," he joked of the scene in which Cam dressed as his alter-ego defends partner Mitchell.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said ABC was responsible for paying the salaries of the Modern Family cast. 20th Century Fox Television employs and pays the cast. The post has been edited to correct that error.

This is not the way ABC drew it up, obviously. The network will walk into a room full of television critics and reporters today trying to put the best possible spin on the fall schedule and the super insanely awesome development season they had (spin intended), but the first question will be about Modern Family.

And not “Congratulations on all the Emmy nominations for your hit comedy Modern Family.”

Nope. The reporters and critics are going to want to know why it had to come to this – the Modern Family cast holds out for more money, skips a table read for the coming season and then decides to get real serious in a real hurry by suing 20th Century Fox Television for more money.

Which, by the way, is ongoing. So, let’s see. Not long ago ABC entertainment head Paul Lee’s to-do list on his calendar was pretty simple: Show up at the Beverly Hilton on July 27 and spin the hell out of the coming season while spinning the hell out of last season’s random bright spots, take a couple of tough questions about dubious decisions and network rankings, then close with a a joke or two and out the door.

It was supposed to be about looking forward, not backward.

Now it’s about ABC's best show embarrassing the network by suing for more money per episode. Yes, the actors are in a fight with the studio that makes the show, but the embarrassment is pretty much all ABC's. And if things don’t get resolved quicker than not -- meaning if things get uglier -- the season could be delayed and we could have the Modern Family cast telling America at the Emmys that they’re getting robbed.

STORY: 'Modern Family' Update: Steve Levitan Pens Letter to Cast

Wait, check that. In the real world -- and in the real world’s unflinching economic situation -- there’s probably not a lot of Americans who are going to shed a tear for actors asking for more money.

But see, that’s the perception outside the bubble. Everybody in this town knows that the real world does not apply and that in this town getting your fair share of a hit show is paramount. So maybe the Modern Family cast, upon their inevitable Emmy victories, will play the, “We’d love to make you laugh every Wednesday night, America, but the powers that be won’t let go of their pennies” card. It could work, because if there’s anything sure about corporate identification outside the bubble, it’s that your average American knows that Disney makes more money than it can count, even if the issue is largely in the hands of 20th Television. Nobody in the real world knows much about that. They see networks, not studios. And your average American wants to come home and laugh at a show they love, not Google what the hell has happened only to find out there’s a contract squabble.

Which indirectly brings up a valid point: Pay them.

Seriously, pay the cast what they want, get back to work and get back to printing money. Surely there are people inside ABC with a sense of history. You are not going to win this one. Not financially, not on the public relations side, not on the logistics/production side. Whatever they can do to pressure 20th Television should be done and done again.

So pay them. And here’s why: they deserve it. Before Modern Family, ABC made successful comedies about as often as people wore parkas in Arizona. ABC’s track record was abysmal. Oh, it had a few shows that did fine enough. And their names are…um…forget it.

STORY: 'Modern Family' Cast Sues 20th TV as Contract Renegotiation Turns Ugly

Modern Family is the cornerstone series that got ABC back in the sitcom game, allowed it to launch other series around it and brought that elusive tandem element to the network: A hit show that was critically acclaimed. A hit show that was smart and broadly funny and had – let’s not put too fine a point on this one – a phenomenal cast that people couldn’t get enough of. Never mind the quibbles you might have with it, Modern Family is the Seinfeld of its time. Every network wants that show. And the smart ones would pay for it, knowing damn well that when lightning strikes and all the facets come together in some sublimely perfect way, well, you’re going to have to open up the wallet, if not the vault.

If the money is coming from 20th TV, then ABC needs to have its small country of lawyers yell at 20th's small country of lawyers to get something done. Because this mess is, ultimately, ABC's to clean up. How does that fact surprise ABC? It’s how the game is played. Hit year after hit year, Emmy dominance to go along with it – how does that not say pay raise in neon? The fact is, in the current world of rainmaking shows in a medium quickly succumbing to lower expectations and niche ratings, the cast of Modern Family is shockingly underpaid per episode at a reported $65 thousand.

The show could run for ages. It could be a hit for ages. It could bring home Emmy hardware for ages. And more important, through syndication it will be on television for ages – making so much money for everyone that they will get bored counting it.

Look, nobody yet knows the truth about how negotiations turned ugly so swiftly. But they know they turned ugly. This morning, ABC is going to have its hype machine derailed by something it doesn’t want to talk about.

Unless all parties come to their senses, realize the damage that could occur from drawn out fighting, and pays the cast what it wants and deserves, this is just going to become a regrettable farce.

Do you know how Lee and the rest of the ABC execs could top Fox’s Kevin Reilly – who called new American Idol judge Mariah Carey from this cell phone right there on stage during his TCA executive session to confirm her deal?

They could make sure the cast gets paid. Hell, maybe ABC can pay for a stake in a show that means the world to them. If 20th doesn't want to cough up the money, the network that airs the show needs to be proactive, It’s that simple. Announce that it's going to happen and the details will follow. Because it's inevitable that they will sign – probably for what they wanted in the first place. You might as well get a pat on the back for coming to your senses and then avoiding the crises management that derails the promotion machine for next season -- where maybe the next Modern Family miraculously appears.

Because, you know, shows like that are a dime a dozen.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine