Jackson Square became a stage set for the CBS show during Super Bowl week. Credit: Bernie Murden

Social media lit up with complaints when CBS hung a sign on Andrew Jackson’s statue in the French Quarter to promote its show “The Talk,” during Super Bowl week. CBS officials removed the red-and-white sign, saying they didn’t mean to disrespect the historic site, and the mini-controversy disappeared. But another move by CBS involving the The Talk is producing more complaints: The network giant is seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars for broadcasting the daytime chat show in New Orleans.

“It’s obvious to everyone involved that ‘The Talk’ was coming here anyway,” said state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans. “It doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Said state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton: “The purpose of the credit was to bring new productions here. If you host a Super Bowl, everyone will be here anyway.”

CBS is applying to recoup one-third of the money it says it spent for The Talk, under the state’s Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit. CBS appears to be eligible for a $700,000 tax credit, whether deducted from other taxes owed the state, sold into the tax-credit market at 85 cents on the dollar or sold back to the state for cash. NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune first reported on the application last month; blogger Kalen Wright wrote about it last week.

A state official said that, notwithstanding the controversy, CBS likely will get the tax credit.

CBS’ application comes at a time when Gov. Bobby Jindal wants to scale back the generous tax credits as part of his tax revamp plan. That puts CBS in the crosshairs for critics of the tax benefit.

Tax credit lures film companies

Begun in 1992 and expanded in 2002, the tax credit program cost the state treasury $223 million in 2012, state figures show. Over the past decade, Louisiana has emerged as “Hollywood South,” one of the hottest centers for making movies and TV shows outside of Los Angeles and New York. Realtors and community activists cite the industry as a factor in the revitalization of older neighborhoods such as Treme, Bywater and Mid-City.

Under the state program, companies can obtain a tax credit for up to 35 percent of the money they spend while broadcasting or filming in Louisiana. CBS’ Jan. 25 application anticipated spending $2.4 million in Louisiana, and employing 140 people to produce “The Talk” over a 29-day period.  

Chris Stelly, who manages the tax credit for Louisiana Economic Development, a state agency, said he expects “The Talk” to qualify for the tax benefit.

“The Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit statute specifically excludes televised news and sporting events from eligibility; therefore, the filming and distribution of a game such as the Super Bowl would be ineligible to receive motion picture tax credits in Louisiana,” Stelly wrote in an email. “However, talk shows that are filmed in Louisiana are eligible.”

In an interview, Stelly added: “The law says what the law says.”

Would ‘The Talk’ have come anyway?

That doesn’t sit well with Morrell.

He wants the Legislature to pass a resolution directing Louisiana Economic Development to reject such applications unless they demonstrate that the show came to Louisiana only because of the tax credits.

“The tax credit shouldn’t be icing on the cake,” Morrell said. He believes the Legislature can direct Louisiana Economic Development to revise its rules, although he acknowledged that the agency’s lawyers contend that the Legislature instead must pass a law specifying the new rules.

Asked why CBS applied for the tax credit, CBS Studios spokeswoman Lauri Metrose emailed this statement:*

Traveling and shooting a live, daily entertainment talk show on location is a considerable expense. This was the first time we’ve ever done it for a Super Bowl, showcasing New Orleans to a national audience every day for an hour in daytime in the process. The growing production infrastructure and support services in the state, as well as the tax incentive, continue to make Louisiana an attractive option for a variety of television productions. We currently have two drama pilots filming in the state right now.

 Morrell also has a strategic reason for wanting to tighten the rules for the motion picture tax credit. He believes that making the program less generous will head off moves to eliminate it. “A lot of legislators don’t like the credit because they don’t see any benefit,” he said.

Under fire from both left and right

The Louisiana Budget Project, a liberal-leaning group based in Baton Rouge, in August released a report on the economics of the film and TV industry tax credit showing that creating each job cost the state $60,000. The state spent $7.29 for every $1 in tax revenue it received, the group found. It called the program “corporate welfare.”

From the right, as part of his dream of eliminating the state income tax and picking up the lost revenues elsewhere, Gov. Bobby Jindal wants to prevent the tax credit from applying to salaries of more than $1 million. So if Kevin Costner received $5 million in salary while filming in Louisiana, the production company could claim a 30 percent tax credit for only $1 million of it.

The Louisiana Film & Entertainment Association, a trade group, has reacted strongly against Jindal’s idea, saying the cap would likely “bankrupt” major studio facilities in the state.

Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who is unfamiliar with the recent CBS application, said he doesn’t remember discussion about one-time TV shows like “The Talk” when, as a state senator, he sponsored the 2002 measure that made Louisiana attractive to Hollywood.

“The discussion at the time was, let’s create an industry for Louisiana by making the state a competitive place to make movies,” Dardenne said. “The goal at the outset was not only to attract Hollywood but create a new industry that would create long-term jobs. That’s now happening.”

This story was updated after publication to note that The Times-Picayune and blogger Kalen Wright had written about the tax credit already.

*Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Lauri Metrose’s position.

Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism....