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Exclusive: CBS to its stars -- no raise for you!

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Okay, now you know the recession is bad when the cast of CSI: Miami has to start clipping coupons.

CBS Paramount is asking the on-air talent on the majority of its dramas to forgo their annual raises and keep their salaries flat next season. (Multiyear contracts typically have standard yearly increases built in.) The unprecedented move, part of an overall cost-cutting measure, is an effort to keep budgets down at the CSIs, NCIS, Numb3rs, and their kin, and prevent further behind-the-scenes layoffs. (CBS dramas produced by outside studios — i.e., Ghost Whisperer, The Mentalist, and Without a Trace — won’t be affected.)

But, as many in the business have pointed out, the gambit is likely to

create as many problems as it solves. For instance, what happens if a

star balks at the idea of maintaining the status quo? “Some [of these

TV] leads won’t accept a freeze,” says a showrunner at a rival

network, who adds that while the studio can’t fire them outright, they

can decide not to pick up their contract option at the end of the

season. The likelier scenario, however, is that a cut will be made

somewhere else on the show. “The leverage they will use is  ‘Freeze

your already ludicrously high salary, or watch a bunch of your

coworkers lose their jobs.'”

In fact, one exec producer at a CBS Paramount drama is already

preparing for such a worst-case scenario. “If our lead doesn’t accept

the freeze, we will have no choice but to let one of our supporting

actors go,” says the exec. “There’s no question that it’s the

second-tier actors who are most vulnerable.”

Also, what’s the point of signing a long-term

contract if you’re not going to honor its terms? “It effectively

renders the multiyear contracts meaningless,” points out an insider. “But [CBS Paramount] will argue

[that] its actors already treat multiyear contracts as meaningless.

Actors on five-, six-, and seven-year contracts typically come in asking

to renegotiate at year 2 or 3. This would be the same thing, only

the reverse.”

Counters a TV agent who has clients on CBS Paramount shows: “Studios

are never obligated to engage in a renegotiation. They do so because

they know it’s the right thing to do on shows that are successful.”

Obviously, it’s a debate that could — and probably will — go on ad

infinitum. “There’s no question,” chuckles a high-ranking exec at a

rival network, “that there is some deep irony to actors [asking] the

studios to ‘honor the contract’ when they almost never do.” A better

solution, the suit suggests, would be to at long last “shut down the

ridiculous renegotiations that actors want to do every year. That seems

like the sane and fair way to get this business back to reality. Two

wrongs don’t make a right — we should all agree to stick to our

original contracts, and if a studio overpaid for someone, they should

just suck it up and make a better deal next time.”

That’s assuming there will be a next time. “I don’t think the studio is

playing a game,” says one veteran producer. “I think they’re desperate.

Prime-time viewership is way down, and the advertising base is being

devastated by the recession.”

“They would be opening a whole Pandora’s box,” warns another top talent

agent. “CBS is constantly talking about how well they’re doing. They

can’t have it both ways.” Adds a fellow agent: “[CBS Paramount] is not

going to be a place actors are attracted to if they’re not going to

honor their contracts.” (A rep for CBS Paramount declined to comment.)

The big question is whether other studios will follow CBS’ lead and

institute their own pay freezes. Reps at NBC Universal and Twentieth

Television insist no such measure is on the table, while a Warner Bros.

spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

So what do you think, folks? Is this the end of network TV as we know

it? Just a blip on the radar (unless you’re an agent)? Do you think

anyone will walk? The mind boggles, so go ahead and think out loud

below.