Modern Family' Cast Sues Over "Illegal Contracts": What Does This Mean for the Show?

As the fourth season of the show gets ready to tape, the cast is demanding contract negotiations and heavy increases

On Monday night, Modern Family's exec producer Steve Levitan tweeted: "Tomorrow is the first Modern Family table read of season 4! Hard to believe." For the cast, too, apparently. The next morning, the actors didn't show.

Instead of going to work, Sofia Vergara, Jesse Tyler-Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet, Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen filed a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles Superior Court. Later in the day, Ed O'Neill, who had been negotiating his contract separately, joined them as a sixth plaintiff. Why? They want more money. And in order to get it, they'll need to legally void their present contracts, which they claim violate California's "7-Year-Rule." (In a nutshell, the law says that personal service contracts can't span longer than seven years.)  

Yes, TV fans, we've reached that moment in a hit sitcom's timeline when the actors want to renegotiate their pay. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the show is right on course: Salary "renegotiations are common between the third and fourth seasons, when casts of hit shows typically get bigger paychecks in exchange for agreeing to continue with the show beyond the seventh season." 

Producers must have seen this coming. Now that the show is a critic's darling (all six leads were nominated for Emmys this year and the show has already won 11 in the last two years), averaging 13 million viewers per episode, and making silly amounts of money, the actors would like a pay raise commensurate with the production company's revenues. For season three, the five actors were reportedly making about $65,000 an episode, while O'Neill made about $105,000. Sounds good, but the contracts they signed oblige them to work through 2016, with pay raises capped at 4 percent per season. (It's 5 percent for Vergara.) All of the actors would like their salaries to go up a lot more than a handful of percentage points. 

To be fair, 20th Century Fox did up the ante: The Hollywood Reporter goes on to say that "the five cast members are being offered salary increases as follows: $150,000 per episode plus a $50,000 per episode bonus for season 4; $200,000 per episode for season 5; $225,000 for season 6; and up to $325,000 for an anticipated season 9." But the actors want more, "including more than double the offered salary if the show goes 8 or 9 seasons, as expected."

Coincidentally, just last week Vergara was named the top earning TV actress of last year. She made $19 million, mostly through endorsements for Burger King, Pepsi, State Farm, Comcast Infiniti, and K Mart clothing line (for which Forbes says she earned a $7 million advance). It sure seems like an odd time to be asking for a bigger salary.

But you can just imagine what Vergara and the rest of the cast must be thinking: If Charlie Sheen was worth $1.8 million per episode of Two and a Half Men (which has never won the best comedy Emmy), why are they being paid so little comparatively? It's yet one more example of how far Hollywood is from the real world.

But back in the real world…how will all of this affect the upcoming season of ABC's highest-rated scripted show? Probably not much. ABC programming chief Paul Lee is scheduled to speak to the media on Friday morning at the annual TV press tour. Chances are, the negotiations will be over by then, and the cast will go back to work. Here's a safe bet: Vergara and her cohorts are about to get even richer.

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