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Greener pastures? He'll keep `Frasier'

Christopher Lloyd would seem to be television's version of the man who has it all. He is the guiding creative executive behind "Frasier," which has won the Emmy as best comedy four years running, every year it has been on the air. With about 60 sitcoms being broadcast and fewer than half a dozen true hits, that is a distinction.

But given the fever that has gripped the world of television production these days, with NBC paying an unheard-of $13 million for each episode of "ER," successful and rich are often not enough. As in baseball, this is an era of free agency in television, with writers - even those with a fraction of Lloyd's experience - frequently jumping shows and signing huge contracts to get a shot at the holy grail, creating a hit sitcom.Lloyd, 37, a second-generation television writer, is that rare person who has not only stuck with his show from the start but also has yet to try his hand at creating a new series. "I must have set a modern-day record that I've been doing this for 13 years and I've never written a pilot," he said. "I just feel like you learn the business first, then you think about your own show."

He added: "The network and studio executives try to shame me. It's subtle, but there is a lot of sort of macho pressure: `Come on, what are you afraid of? Go ahead and develop your own show.' They can really push you."

Indeed, several agents said plainly that they regarded Lloyd (who is not related to the actor of the same name) as foolish for not cutting a better deal for himself by developing new shows. Lloyd would not comment, but he is reportedly earning $9 million over the span of a four-year contract, with two years left to run, as an executive producer of "Frasier," or, in television jargon, as its "show runner."

One agent said that in this superheated environment Lloyd could probably pull in $15 million for a three- or four-year contract. Even more important, if he created the next "Frasier," it could be worth scores of millions of dollars to him, since the creators of shows share in the long-term profits.

Hollywood is in the throes of what is known as pilot season, when just about every writer is involved in pitching ideas for new fall shows. But the competition has grown even more intense than in the past. Network television has been losing a significant portion of its audiences to cable channels. That has placed enormous pressure on the principal broadcast networks - ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, plus the fledgling WB and UPN networks - to do just about anything to shore up or hang on to their shares of the market.

Adding to the frenzy is the fact that even with their problems, only the networks can deliver the mass audiences that advertisers demand. That is why a hit like the departing "Seinfeld," or even "Frasier" or perhaps eventually "Ally McBeal," can earn scores of millions of dollars a year for a network. And that is why the big Hollywood studios and smaller production companies have been willing to pay multimillion-dollar salaries to writers not yet 30 years old, just on the off chance that they might be able to deliver that Next Big Idea.

"The fear of a continuing erosion in the audience has made everyone more anxious to come up with the next hit," said Ted Harbert, the former chairman of ABC Entertainment and now a producer of shows at Dreamworks SKG. "People aren't just worried about a few points of market share, but their survival now."

He added: "The real issue is there are a dozen, maybe a couple dozen truly experienced show runners out there. The bidding on the good ones drives up the pay even for the less-experienced people. When you pay that kind of money, you're just gambling that this kid is it."

Those pressures, of course, do not necessarily make for sustained bursts of creativity. In fact, many critics agree that the overall quality of the new network shows appears to be declining.

"It's no secret" that most of the current sitcoms "really stink," Lloyd said. "But the truth is it's very hard to create a good television show under any circumstances."

He conceded that he must pay his writers top dollar and that he eventually intended to try his hand at writing an original show and enjoying the rewards it would bring. Nevertheless, he said, the heated atmosphere leaves him uncomfortable, particularly since he regards himself as a craftsman - he still writes about two scripts a season himself - who believes that experience plays a significant role in shaping good stories.

"It's got to be galling for most of the world to read about this," Lloyd said. "The amounts of money being made are in everyone's consciousness, both inside and outside the business. It does create this kind of fever." And even with the exorbitant salaries, he said, there is still no guarantee that the writing will be any good.

Unlike other famous sitcoms including "Seinfeld" and "Cheers," from which "Frasier" was spun off, Lloyd's show was a hit from the start. It won five Emmy awards its first season.

Lloyd attributed that largely to the fact that unlike many other shows, "Frasier" is staffed by veterans like himself. In practical terms, he said, that meant that the show was built not around funny lines but funny story lines, and characters with some emotional depth.

"Where the experience comes in is you try lots of different things all the time, but at some point, the eye of experience says that if you do this it'll buy you six more episodes, and that it is worth exploring a particular situation, even if that means abandoning something else." Lloyd said.

"You see, a lot of shows have funny writers, people who may well be able to write a funnier scene than we can, but these people may not be able to tell a story, which is the hardest part of the job."

For example, Lloyd said, at the beginning of the show, the writers were not certain if "Frasier" would be a workplace comedy, focused on the radio station where Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) works as a well-meaning, pompous, on-air therapist, or a family sitcom. Over time, Lloyd said, the focus has shifted to exploring Frasier's relationships with his curmudgeonly father (John Mahoney) and his stuffy brother (David Hyde Pierce).

His brother, another therapist, named Niles Crane, was not expected to play a very large part, but once the writers saw the possibilities in the character and witnessed the versatility of Pierce, his role grew.

Lloyd began working in television when he was 24, fresh from a trip to Asia. There, he collected odd tales after visiting his old roommate from Yale, where he decided he had a facility for spinning yarns. His first job was with "The Golden Girls," from which he moved on to a show called "Down Home," then "Wings."

It was not preordained that he would end up in television, but Lloyd conceded that he has been immersed in the medium from the time he was young. His father, David Lloyd, was a writer on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi" and "Cheers." He even works occasionally for his son now as a consultant on "Frasier," doing what is referred to as punch-up, or rewriting of scenes.

The younger Lloyd said he took great satisfaction in having been the show runner on a series that has received such recognition. "I'm not held back in any way," he said. "I'm having more fun than any other show I've done."

He noted, though, that the pull of trying to develop a new show was powerful. For instance, the creators of "Frasier," David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee, have little direct involvement in the show because they are focused on developing new sitcoms.

But for now, he is content to remain with "the best comedy on television," Lloyd said. "And that may come along only once in a career. That's been in the back of my mind. If I go off and create my own show, I would do my best to make it as good as `Frasier,' but a lot of things can go wrong, or not go right. And right now just about everything here is going right. You hate to give that up."