August 21, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

HEALTHY, WEALTHY, AND WISE? The latest round of TV-star salary explosions proves two things: Trickle-down economics is alive and well in Hollywood. And the increasingly troubled broadcast industry still has no grasp of fiscal reality.

Warner Bros. TV‘s decision to reward ER vets Anthony Edwards and Noah Wyle with huge long-term contracts is no surprise really, given the generous $13 million-per-episode paycheck NBC is forking over for the next three years. That kind of money makes $375,000 per show for Edwards and $285,000 for Wyle a mere drop in an IV tube. Furthermore, George Clooney‘s impending exit (at the end of the upcoming season) makes it key for the studio to hold on to the No. 1 drama’s highest-profile stars. And if you’re worried about the fiscal fitness of the rest of the cast, fear not: ER costs less than $2 million an episode, so there’s plenty of leftover moola for everyone.

This same logic applies to two other recipients of recent pay hikes: news stars Katie Couric (an estimated $5 million raise) and Jane Pauley (about $1 million), who host NBC cash cows Today and Dateline NBC, respectively. But these shows, like ER, are exceptions. NBC was the only network to make a profit last year, and with Seinfeld gone and some of the net’s other pricey shows in decline (including Mad About You), the Peacock will be hard-pressed to repeat that performance. As for most news shows, for every major anchor who gets a big raise, some producer gets sacked or a bureau is shut down.

It’s not just talent cashing in either. Writers and producers are getting multimillion-dollar development deals. And while it’s true that the profits from a Friends or an ER can pay for dozens of failures, if the costs keep rising, that too will change.

”The industry is moving toward disaster,” predicts Fred Silverman, whose long run in TV has included stints as programming chief of three major networks (he now runs his own production company). ”People who were mere story editors one season are getting 1 million to 5 million a year the next. Add those deals up with the cost of talent and the dwindling audience and this is a disastrous scenario.”

Is it too late to turn back the clock? Some think so. How, for example, can execs at Paramount and NBC tell Frasier star Kelsey Grammer — who recently got bumped up to more than $400,000 an episode — that the till is empty at his next salary negotiation? (Sure, Kelsey, we know Paul Reiser was getting $1 million an episode and your show gets better ratings, but we’ve changed the way we’re doing business.)

But Silverman believes the nets have no choice. ”Gradually a network will learn to say no,” says Silverman. ”They may take their licks once or twice, but ultimately they can change this. They must either find a way to deal with realities or become dinosaurs.”

No current network or studio president could argue with Silverman’s logic, given continuing viewership erosion and the inevitable loss in ad revenue. That said, none would talk on the record. They’re stuck in an awkward position: It’s hard to say business policies must stop while you’re still practicing them.

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