In Depth

'Ghost Whisperer' Kerfuffle a Sign of the Times

It's a longshot, but the Jennifer Love Hewitt drama "Ghost Whisperer" could end up moving to ABC next season if CBS and ABC Studios can't come to an agreement on a new license fee agreement for the show.

Representatives for ABC, NBC and Fox have all been approached by ABC Studios about picking up "Ghost" should it become available, multiple industry insiders confirmed. ABC is considered the most likely home for the show should it jump.

The haggling between CBS and ABC Studios is just the latest sign of the tough economic climate at the networks. Broadcasters are under intense pressure to cut programming costs wherever possible, leading to widespread reports of intense, bordering on acrimonious, license fee negotiations between networks and studios.

The budget battles could end up impacting a number of shows, including NBC's "My Name is Earl" and CBS's "The New Adventures of Old Christine."

However, some industry insiders believe all the tough talk will ultimately prove to be just that -- talk-- and that networks and studios will find a way to keep shows on the air at their respective networks.

Representatives for both CBS and ABC Studios declined comment over the weekend.

In the case of "Ghost Whisperer," ABC Studios and CBS Paramount Network Television jointly produce the Friday night drama for the CBS Television Network. All indications are that CBS wants to bring the show back next season, and it has an option to do just that.

But here's the catch: CBS' option assumes the network is willing to accept a dramatically higher license fee than what it now pays. Because "Ghost" is going into its fifth season, the deal now in place calls for CBS to start paying the full cost of production on the show next season, which insiders estimate to be around $3 million per episode. One person familiar with the situation said CBS now pays about half that amount per episode.

Given the tough financial times, several people familiar with the situation said ABC Studios knows that it's unrealistic to expect CBS to pay $3 million per episode for a modest success such as "Ghost." While the series is a solid anchor for CBS, it airs on Friday, a lower-revenue night for the networks that demands lower-cost programming.

That said, ABC Studios executives believe CBS should offer more than the modest license fee increases currently on the table, a person familiar with the talks said. As a result, the studio recently began talking to other networks about picking up the show in the event a deal with CBS can't be reached.

While Steve McPherson now oversees both ABC and ABC Studios, negotiations regarding "Ghost" are being handled by former ABC Studios chief Mark Pedowitz. Mr. Pedowitz is now a senior advisor to Disney Media Networks Co-Chairman Anne Sweeney.

NBC has already indicated that it's unlikely to make a serious play for "Ghost." Some executives at Fox are intrigued by the idea of buying "Ghost" -- and possibly pairing it with a second season of Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse" -- but it seems unlikely a deal would be done.

That leaves ABC. Network insiders believe "Ghost" would be a solid addition to the network's Friday lineup, and they like the show's strong female appeal.

Still, it's hard to believe ABC would be willing to pay the full $3 million per episode cost of the show. It was not immediately clear what pricetag ABC might be willing to accept for "Ghost," however.

And one person familiar with the matter said ABC has indicated it would only be interested in "Ghost" as a midseason play. Such a deal could hurt the show's potential syndication profits, since it might mean fewer than the standard annual 22-24 episodes.

ION picked up broadcast syndication rights to "Ghost" last year, while Sci Fi and WE have a deal in place for cable runs of the show. While a move wouldn't impact the price those networks will pay per episode, an unsuccessful switch to another network might result in "Ghost" going off the air sooner than if it had stayed at CBS, reducing profits for all parties.

Some industry insiders are convinced "Ghost" isn't going anywhere. They believe ABC Studios and Mr. Pedowitz are simply testing the market to see just how valuable "Ghost" is, the better to convince CBS to come up on its current offer for the show.

What's more, CBS does not believe that ABC Studios has the right to shop "Ghost" without the network's permission, industry insiders said.

The drama over "Ghost Whisperer" isn't the only example of how the tight economics of network television is playing a role in series renewals this spring.

NBC and 20th have been going back and forth for days over a new license fee for "My Name is Earl." Executives at the studio have expressed frustration with NBC's treatment of the show, at one point even floating the idea that sister network Fox might be willing to pick up the series if NBC didn't step up with a renewal at the appropriate price point.

Fox network insiders, however, insist that there's little interest in the Jason Lee half-hour. And there is one camp inside NBC which strongly believes the network ought to cut "Earl" and attempt to launch a new comedy Thursdays at 8, most likely the Jimmy Burrows-directed multicamera half-hour "100 Questions."

Another sitcom question mark is CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine." All indications are that the network wants to bring the Warner Bros. TV-produced show back.

But with CBS looking to cut license fees on all of its shows, some industry insiders are already wondering if the network and studio could come to blows over "Christine," assuming CBS makes a firm decision to renew the show. ABC last year indicated it would be ready to take on "Christine" if CBS passed; insiders at the network said no such discussions have occured this year, though given ABC's sitcom troubles, the network would probably be amenable to a "Christine" pickup.