Studios try their luck with unproven producers -- Making a hit television show like ''Dharma & Greg'' can be a lot like gambling

By Joe Flint
Updated March 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Say you have a grand to gamble with but are forced to choose between two wagers: Would you bet on the potential success of CNN’s Larry King’s current marriage (his seventh) or the latest multi-million-dollar development deal between a TV studio and a producer?

Unfair, we know. The odds for both are about as good as a 7th HeavenSopranos crossover. But how better to illustrate the perplexing rash of outrageous TV development deals? On one hand, we have desperate execs scrambling for ways to economize in light of escalating production costs. On the other, we have those same suits greenlighting exorbitant deals with producers, some without a single hit show to their credit. To wit, the recent four-year, $8 million deal between Twentieth Century Fox TV and the sought-after Rob Thomas, 33. His resume? A season writing on Dawson’s Creek before cocreating the just-canceled ABC drama Cupid.

As TV writer Rob Long explains in his 1997 book Conversations With My Agent, a development deal is ”one of those entertainment industry creations that, when described, sound suspiciously like goofing off.” Basically, a studio throws lots of money at a writer hoping that the next Seinfeld will emerge. More often, it’s the next Single Guy — and that’s if they’re lucky. Indeed, for every smart move (such as Twentieth’s $10 million payday to Dharma & Greg cocreator Chuck Lorre), there are many more like Big Ticket TV’s $15 million deal with Single Guy creator Brad Hall. Yield so far: zip.

Producers’ agents, who instigate the bidding wars between studios, don’t help matters; these masters of bluff drive the deal prices sky-high to fatten their commissions. ”It is a game of poker,” says NBC Entertainment prez Scott Sassa. You have to decide not only what you’d spend, ”but what are the odds of succeeding down the road.” NBC Studios recently took a pass on the services of Will & Grace creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, who then turned around and inked a four-year, $16.4 million deal with Warner Bros. TV. Peter Roth, its president, called the duo ”two of the strongest creators in the comedy genre.” Reality check: Good writing or no, Grace is a modest hit, and their last show was the NBC stinker Boston Common. ”Nothing against their talent,” says Sassa, ”but with the numbers asked, we weren’t comfortable going forward.”

Studio execs argue that revenue from hits makes what’s lost on failed deals seem like chump change. ”Paying someone $16 million may sound insane,” says Studios USA president Ken Solomon, ”but if you pick right, it makes winning the lottery look like lunch money at McDonald’s.” Of course, if you pick wrong, he adds, ”you’ll be serving lunch there.”

Who knows? Rob Thomas or Kohan and Mutchnick could end up the next David E. Kelleys, but isn’t there a cheaper way of finding out? Why not, for example, offer producers a more realistic base salary ($1 million annually would keep writers in food and, more important, the ubiquitous BMW) with incentive clauses allowing for raises — another mil when the show gets on a network, more bucks if it’s renewed, and a giant syndication payday. Movie producers frequently take lower up-front fees in return for a percentage of the profits, and that’s basically what Disney’s Touchstone TV offered thirtysomething creators Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz; they agreed to a lot less in wages for a hefty 50 percent of potential rerun profits. ”They’re prepared to bet the long ball,” says Buena Vista TV chairman Lloyd Braun. Rivals noticed. ”I hope,” says USA’s Solomon, ”reducing up-front risk and sharing in success is the direction we’re all going in.”