Missing: CSI's George Eads. Is he the first casualty in a new war on TV salaries?

By Allison Hope Weiner
Updated July 30, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

The message Viacom copresident Les Moonves delivered the week of July 12 was loud and clear: The networks are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore!

Which is why ”CSI,” TV’s top-rated series, is facing the disappearance of two of its top forensic investigators, Jorja Fox and George Eads. Moonves found the actors guilty of the ultimate TV crime: asking for too big a raise too soon. ”There’s this assumption that a contract is not valid,” Moonves tells EW. ”That’s what bothers me. It’s become a normal practice for actors to break their contracts in the middle of them. It’s absurd.”

Eads and Fox — who are in the fifth year of seven-year contracts — were reportedly asking for salary bumps that would have brought them more than their $100,000 per episode. But negotiations apparently weren’t going well. When Fox didn’t notify CBS that she’d be returning and Eads didn’t show up for work, the network told them not to bother — it just fired them. (According to sources, Fox is negotiating a return.)

Fox and Eads are hardly the first TV actors to pressure networks into forking over more cash when their shows become hits. Sometimes they claim illness (Jane Kaczmarek’s migraines disappeared after her ”Malcolm in the Middle” contract was renegotiated); other times they don’t bother with doctors’ notes (”Friends,” ”Seinfeld”) — they just stay home until their salary demands are met. ”The ‘Friends’ negotiations was one of the greatest mistakes in the last 30 years of television,” says ”Law & Order” exec producer Dick Wolf. ”You don’t give in to blackmail. You need a zero-tolerance policy.” Wolf should know — he wrote the book on the revolving cast door.

According to ”Third Watch” exec producer Ed Bernero (who says he’s currently dealing with a ”CSI”-type problem on his show), ”It’s the managers and agents who negotiated the first deal who tell their clients they deserve more. Everybody tells these different actors they’re the lead.” Though, as one lawyer points out, renegotiations often occur because actors are shortchanged when they’re hired. ”Studios require series actors to sign six-year contracts at very low salaries, saying they’re new and unproven,” says Peter Nelson, who helped the ”West Wing” actors nail their group raise last year. ”When the show becomes a hit, the studio wants to retain all the profit. What’s fair about that?”

The man who approved those ”West Wing” raises, NBC TV president Jeff Zucker, is now Moonves’ biggest cheerleader. ”Les’ remarks publicly state what we’ve privately been doing,” he tells EW. ”We’re not going to renegotiate contracts with guns to our heads. I applaud him for saying it out loud.”

Zucker, it should be noted, is also the man who added another $1.5 million to the weekly budget of ”Friends” in 2002. And let’s be clear: Eads and Fox are the perfect people to make noisy examples of. They aren’t the stars of ”CSI,” and Moonves has shown he’ll go to extreme lengths to keep a series’ major players. ”There’s a difference between having an Eads hold out and having Ray Romano [do so],” says a senior network exec. ”He’s someone you can’t do the show without.” In addition to hiking Romano’s salary to $1.8 million per week last year, Moonves just gave a nice bump to ”Without a Trace” star Anthony LaPaglia; and ”CSI”’s Marg Helgenberger is now renegotiating, without likely repercussions.

But who knows? Maybe Moonves has started a revolution. David E. Kelley certainly proved with ”The Practice” that you can fire half a cast (including the star) and actually revitalize a show. Given the desperate state of network TV, the industry may be coming around to Dick Wolf’s way of thinking. ”It’s very simple,” says Wolf. ”People not showing up for work is the definition of chaos. This is an important line in the sand.”