Sorkin back at NBC with Studio deal

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The West Wing ticket of Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme is in the running again at NBC, which outbid CBS late last week for their very expensive new drama pilot. But instead of probing the corridors of the White House, the hourlong series will be set in what seems a lot like the peacock's own house.

A draft of Sorkin's spec script making the rounds in Hollywood last week depicts the behind-the-scenes tumult of a fictional sketch-comedy show in the mold of Saturday Night Live, as well as the corporate culture of a TV network not unlike NBC.

The script, titled Studio 7 On the Sunset Strip, was pitched October 7, igniting a bidding war between NBC and CBS that came to an end Friday. It was the second high-profile script in as many weeks from Warner Bros. Television to trigger a tug-of-war in the broadcast world and result in a megadeal, after CBS managed to beat out NBC and Fox for Class, a comedy spec script from David Crane (Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik (Half & Half), by making a 13-episode commitment.

WBTV and CBS declined comment.

NBC released a statement from president of entertainment Kevin Reilly, hailing Studio. "Aaron Sorkin's work is truly in a class all its own, and (director-producer) Tommy Schlamme, time and again, has delivered exceptional television. This project is a noisy, compelling combination of bold drama and laugh-out-loud comedy."

ULTIMATE PENALTY

While NBC is not believed to be making a multi-episode commitment to Studio, as CBS did with Class, the penalty attached to the project is said to be so massive that it virtually assures Studio a spot on the fall 2006 schedule.

Sources pegged the license fee for the pilot well north of $3 million, making it one of the most expensive pilots NBC ever has ordered. If the penalty were triggered, sources suggested, it could turn Studio into an eight-figure deal.

WBTV is said to have forced NBC's hand Friday by pressing the network to match the terms of a deal it already had on the table with CBS. Terms of the deal could not be determined, but they are said to have been similar in magnitude to that of Class. The two pacts are considered comparable in total value.

The prospect of NBC being back in business with Sorkin and Schlamme again might have seemed unthinkable back in 2003, when the duo left Wing after reports emerged they butted heads with the network over the direction of the Emmy-winning series. But sources say the backstage tussling was more internal and did not involve the network.

If Studio is greenlighted as expected, the series would have a shorter-term deal than the six-year span that has become standard for most primetime programming; Class is said also to be a limited-term deal.

With that structure potentially putting networks in the position of having to negotiate renewals with studios at the height of a show's success, sources say ABC has steered clear of both bidding wars.

MIRROR IMAGE?

The irony of the Studio pickup is that the series' subject matter echoes just the kind of network backroom maneuvering NBC engaged in to reach a deal with Sorkin and Schlamme.

And the tense executive chain of command depicted in Studio has similarities with a power struggle reportedly playing out at NBC. Sorkin might even have written a thinly veiled version of himself into the script, creating the character of a talented TV scribe whose career is compromised by cocaine use. Sorkin has publicly acknowledged his past struggles with drug addiction, including an arrest in 2001 for possessing illegal substances.

For its part, the peacock is believed to be unfazed by Sorkin's allusions to SNL or the network itself. The network also is considering a pilot from another A-list executive producer, David E. Kelley, that provides an insider take on a morning talk show similar to Today.

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