EXCLUSIVE: Lifetime has picked up 10 more episodes of its flagship drama Army Wives. The series is currently in production on its 13-episode sixth-season order. I hear Lifetime’s decision to stockpile more episodes was made now so the show could stay in continuous production. It comes after both of the network’s new series launched this past summer, The Protector and Against The Wall, underperformed. By not branding the pickup as a new season, Lifetime can have all original cast members locked in. The actresses don’t have deals beyond Season 6 but their contracts requires them to do all episodes produced, which would include a 23-episode sixth season.

The 23-episode order will likely be split into two batches but, from a contractual standpoint, Lifetime could make the stars of the show return for the 10 episodes at their current salary. While legal, such a move is generally frowned upon. I hear that Lifetime, which is currently deficit financing the ABC Studios/Mark Gordon Co-produced Army Wives, has offered the main cast members a raise of $10,000 per episode. That represents an increase of 10%-20% for the actresses, whose salaries vary but are all in the 5-figure range, but is far less than what they would get if they have to negotiate new contracts for a seventh season.

Tacking a significant number of new episodes to an existing season order to avoid negotiating new actors’ contracts is common practice. In 2006, the supporting cast of The Sopranos got into a standoff with HBO, which offered them a 10% pay increase when it decided to extend the final sixth season of the Emmy-winning mob drama from 13 to 20 episodes and split it into 2 batches of 12 and 8 episodes. All actors eventually got bigger raises led by Tony Sirico and Steven Van Zandt who held off until the least minute and threatened to leave before more than doubling their salaries. While The Sopranos cast succeeded in getting big bumps, that is considered the exception rather than the rule. For instance, the cast of the FX/Sony TV drama Rescue Me weren’t able to land significant raises when the network opted to split the 19-episode sixth and final season into 2.

Lifetime’s desire to hold onto Army Wives, which had a solid fifth season, punctuated by a series high of 4.8 million total viewers, is understandable. The network is trying to rebuild its scripted series slate, and Army Wives and Drop Dead Diva are its only available anchors. But the network’s decision will have serious repercussions for the cast. The original 13-episode 6th season order for Army Wives, which had been considered as likely the show’s last, was slated to wrap by end of February, just in time for the actors to book broadcast pilots for next fall. Now the new pickup will rule the thesps out for pilots. Things are even more complicated for Army Wives star Sally Pressman, who has a talent holding deal with NBC that calls for her to be available for pilots this season. She will now have to push that deal. Fellow Army Wives star Catherine Bell also had been fielding interest from broadcast networks for pilots. She recently headlined the upcoming TNT movie Good Morning, Killer and had been eying a potential sequel as well as another movie/miniseries in her successful Good Witch movie franchise for the Hallmark Channel after she finishes Army Wives in February.