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‘West Wing’ will be re-elected

Jan 13, 2003  •  Post A Comment

While the smoke was clearing from an electrical fire on “The West Wing” set last week, one thing came into focus-the show is still hot enough for NBC to renew it, though the price will be well below what was anticipated before this season started.
NBC has reached a preliminary agreement with Warner Bros. to renew the series for a license fee of around $2 million, about the same as what the network is currently paying, sources said.
The deal is expected to be finished later this week. Parties on both sides of the negotiations say it is all but done. The only thing holding it up is the finalization of some of the producers’ deals. The series is produced by Warner Bros. and John Wells Productions with Aaron Sorkin, John Wells and Thomas Schlamme executive producing.
It was unclear whether the deal is for two years with an option for three or for one year with an option for two. However, it’s likely that the deal would cover three more seasons, since the core of the cast-Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford and John Spencer-is already locked up through the 2005-06 season. The four co-stars banded together in July 2001 and renegotiated their deals to give them salary bumps in exchange for agreeing to staying on through a potential seventh season. Martin Sheen also signed a multiyear deal in July 2002.
This season is the last year of “The West Wing’s” original four-year deal with NBC. Negotiations began before Christmas but were slowed down by the holiday, sources said.
The return of the series, which has been on the network’s Wednesday lineup since September 1999, wasn’t the slam-dunk for Warner Bros. that it looked like it would be a year ago. Ratings have taken a huge dive across the board this year, with a 33 percent drop in the key adults 18 to 49 demographic to a 4.5 rating and 11 share season to date. That is down from a 6.7/17 for the same time period a year ago.
Demos down
It’s also tumbled 33 percent in adults 18 to 34 (3.1/9 vs. 4.6/13), 25 percent in total viewers (13.8 million viewers vs. 18.4 million viewers) and 25 percent in households (9.2/14 vs. 12.1/19). Season-to-date, “West Wing” is the eighth-highest-rated show among adults 18 to 49 on NBC and No. 20 among all series on TV.
Not that a network ever wants to see one of it’s highest-rated shows drop in the ratings, but the timing did provide additional negotiating leverage for NBC, which was forced to pay about $13 million a year to Warner Bros. to keep its then top-rated show, “ER,” at the height of its popularity. Just last month NBC shelled out $10 million an episode to keep Warner Bros.-produced “Friends” on its schedule next year.
Before the season started, industry insiders speculated that NBC would have to pay anywhere from $7 million to $10 million an episode to keep “West Wing” on its airwaves next year. The show is expensive to produce (somewhere upward of $3 million an episode) with a large cast and elaborate sets, but Warner Bros. also pulls in about $1.2 million an episode from selling repeats to the Bravo cable network, which NBC recently bought and which sells fairly well internationally.
When this season began, there was speculation that CBS or ABC might elect to bid for “West Wing” if NBC didn’t meet Warner Bros.’ price. However, in the wake of the ratings decline, Warner Bros. would have a much more difficult time shopping around the property.
Several factors apparently contributed to “West Wing’s” ratings drop. ABC found a legitimate challenger to “West Wing’s” time slot dominance with the hit reality show “The Bachelor,” which stunned everyone this season by routinely winning the adults 18 to 49 race at 9 p.m. Wednesdays, relegating “West Wing” to second place (or worse). ABC hasn’t given up its grip on the time slot yet, scheduling future editions of “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette” and reality specials in the time period. Much like how CBS opened up Thursday nights by going after NBC’s dominant “Must-See TV” lineup with “Survivor” and “CSI,” competitors are no longer afraid to program against “West Wing.”
Since going on the air, “West Wing” has won critical plaudits and a slew of awards, including the Emmy as best drama of the year in 2000, 2001 and 2002. It was also named best TV drama by the Golden Globes in 2001 and is a nominee again this year. However, the same critics who have heaped praise and awards on the show more recently have been complaining the politically charged drama is creatively off this season. The TV critics have complained about this season’s preachy tone and its primary story line centering on President Bartlett’s re-election campaign. Plus, the mood of the country has changed to a more conservative tone since “West Wing” first began airing in 1999, when Bill Clinton’s Democratic administration was in office.
NBC knows Warner’s well
Warner Bros. has been doing a high volume of business with NBC in recent weeks. NBC renewed “Friends” last month and the NBC owned-and-operated stations picked up the syndicated show “Ellen” from Warner Bros.-owned Telepictures Productions instead of looking in-house to fill the stations’ available time slots.
“West Wing” debuted on Sept. 22, 1999, to a strong 6.1 rating in adults 18 to 49 and a 12.1/19 in households. It’s first season, it pulled 4 and 5 ratings in the demo. Amid the critical acclaim, by its second season it consistently pulled demo ratings in the 6 to 7 range and usually won its time slot. Last week, an original episode of “West Wing” scored a 4.7 rating in adults 18 to 49, compared with the 6.6 rating it pulled in the comparable week last year.
However, even though “West Wing’s” ratings aren’t what they used to be, the series does deliver a higher percentage of viewers with incomes over $70,000 than any other show on TV-a desirable demographic for the network. An argument could be made that NBC still needs the show, considering the declining ratings for its Tuesday lineup, including aging sitcom “Frasier.” Last week, the network’s Tuesday lineup fell to fourth place for the night in the adults 18 to 49 demo.
NBC and Warner Bros. spokespeople said last week that no renewal deal was done.
Creative Artists Agency is the series packager and represents Mr. Wells and former series star Rob Lowe. Mr. Sorkin and Mr. Schlamme are represented by Endeavor. CAA had no comment. Endeavor could not be reached.
-Chris Pursell and Alex Ben Block contributed to this report