Baltimore may lose 'Homicide'

February 10, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It looks like "Homicide" will get renewed by NBC, but there's a possibility that Baltimore could get the boot.

Filming the critically acclaimed show at production facilities in West Coast was one of the scenarios reportedly discussed during talks this week between NBC program executives and "Homicide" producers Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, according to sources.

The difference to Baltimore between "Homicide" filming here or not could be as much as $15.4 million this year, according to figures from the Maryland Film Commission.

The big issue appears to be money: how much of it NBC is willing to pay Levinson and Fontana per episode for the drama about Baltimore homicide detectives. One major way to reduce costs with "Homicide" is to not film on location or, possibly, film on location less.

"Homicide" is one of only two network shows that film on the East Coast, thousands of miles from West Coast production facilities. The other is "Law and Order," another one-hour NBC drama, which films in New York City.

None of the principles in the "Homicide" negotiations would comment on the record on the possibility of Baltimore losing the show. Calls to Fontana were not returned. Rosemary O'Brien, NBC's spokeswoman, said only: "Talks were held Monday and Tuesday, and they went well. But they are still unresolved. They have until the 15th of February."

L Feb. 15 is when contracts for the actors on the show expire.

According to industry sources, here's some of the math being considered in the negotiations.

One-hour dramas are the most expensive network television shows to produce, averaging about a million dollars per episode. Levinson has said that that figure was a little high for "Homicide" but was in the ballpark.

The chief competition for "Homicide" at 10 Thursday nights is "PrimeTime Live," the ABC newsmagazine show with Diane Sawyer and Sam Donaldson. "PrimeTime Live" costs ABC about $450,000 an episode.

Even if ABC winds up paying Sawyer $5 million a year to keep her after her salary expires this month, that's only going to drive the cost up to about $550,000 per episode.

So, "PrimeTime Live" costs about half what "Homicide" costs.

On Jan. 27, when the last episode of "Homicide" earned an 11.9 rating and 19 share to finish 37th out of 92 prime-time shows, "PrimeTime Live" earned a 17.1 rating and 28 share to finish 10th for the week.

The bottom line: "PrimeTime Live" gets better ratings for less money. "Homicide" is going to have to lower its cost to make fiscal sense for NBC.

How can production costs be cut on "Homicide"?

The Maryland Film Commission estimates each episode of the show means $700,000 to the local economy in hotels, meals, taxes, actors' salaries and other production costs. If the series gets a full order of 22 episodes from NBC, that's $15.4 million spent in Baltimore.

If not shooting on location, a considerable amount is saved on such items as hotels, meals and rental cars. But could you make a show that is so much about Baltimore in Los Angeles?

Probably not. But you could probably do more of it in Los Angeles than Levinson and Fontana have done and save some money.

There's also the possibility that some other city could serve as host for less. For example, last week's CBS movie of the week, "Breathing Lessons," was about Baltimore but was filmed in Pittsburgh.

"We hope there's a positive conclusion in the talks between the producers and NBC so that 'Homicide' can return to Baltimore," said Michael Styer, head of the Maryland Film Commission. "It means so much in terms of economic impact to the city and the state."

Styer also said that Gov. William Donald Schaefer on Monday sent Levinson and Fontana a telegram wishing them luck and telling them how much Maryland wants them back.

"We wish you the best in the discussions and negotiations," Schaefer's telegram said.

"I wanted you to know that we are proud of having this exceptional series shot in your native state and stand ready to help toward a positive decision for additional production of the series. Let me know if there's anything we can do to assist you in bringing the series back into production here in Baltimore."

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