500 Channels, Not Enough Buyers

Last week, the broadcast networks derided a proposal from independent producers, artist unions and other groups to bring back the defunct financial-interest and syndication (fin-syn) rules, which restricted the financial interest that broadcast networks could have in their own programming.

In early December, Los Angeles Bureau Chief Paige Albiniak sat down for a roundtable discussion with members of the Caucus for Television Producers, Writers and Directors, who have been fighting media consolidation for 25 years.

The members of the roundtable—Caucus Chairman Chuck Fries, Government Relations Committee Chair Len Hill, and committee members Bill Blinn and Vin DiBona—are passionate on the subject and believe strongly that consolidation has the potential to destroy television.

Each member brings to the Caucus a strong background in the medium.

Fries has been called "the godfather of the television movie," having produced or supervised production on more than 225 hours of TV movies and miniseries. He also worked on such series as Naked City, Route 66, Bewitched, Hazel and Father Knows Best.

Hill, besides knowing the government issues inside and out, has run an independent television production company called Leonard Hill Films since September 1980. The company has produced more than 160 hours of prime time entertainment, mostly in the form of movies and miniseries. It also has created three dramatic series for prime time: Rags to Riches for NBC, Tucker's Witch for CBS and The Insiders for ABC.

Blinn made his career as a writer and wrote and developed such series as Starsky and Hutch and Eight Is Enough. He executive-produced Fame for three seasons and developed the award-winning miniseries Roots for television.

DiBona is an early pioneer of reality television and started America's Funniest Home Videos in 1989. His production company also created Animal Crackups and Battle of the Network Stars. DiBona was an executive producer of King World's Candid Camera.

How are consolidation and vertical integration hurting the creative side of the industry?

Bill Blinn:
There are fewer people with fewer points of view in fewer cases. There used to be "x" number of networks controlled by a proportionate number of people. Now there are three or four or five entities controlling 18, 20, 25 networks. So, if there's one point of view stemming from one sensibility, that sensibility affects far more potential buyers than it used to. There was a time if Buyer A didn't like your offering, you had Buyer B, C, D and on through the alphabet. The alphabet has shrunk. The alphabet is now maybe six or eight letters. It used to be more than 26.

How so? In my recollection, there were three networks, and that was it.

There was a time when that was true. But that doesn't meant there were three buyers. There were three channels to get on, but there were more buyers than that because the networks weren't the only ones buying. In the 500-channel universe where we all live, there are not 500 buyers, not even close.

Vin DiBona:
The regulations that were put into effect in 1970, the financial and syndication rules, were a product of the fact that the men who were running these three broadcast entities were not effectively programming in the public interest and they were impacting the suppliers in such a way that everything was being run just through those three.

What's happened is financial interests were again abolished in 1991 and we find ourselves reverting to the problems we had pre-1970, only on a broader scale.

Len Hill:
There is a sad mistake that a 500-channel universe has replaced a three-channel universe and thus diversity must be served when you have that many new outlets. The creative community should be ecstatic. Why are we whining? What's the problem?

But no matter how many new cars have been added to the train, if there are still only three or four locomotives pulling those trains, you still have that problem of access, which allows the owners of the railroads to extract rights and condition access on all manner of sacrifice from the creative community.

The ever-powerful engineer can banish you from not just one outlet but from many.

It's also the sacrifice of economic leverage: the chance to be motivated by that great American ideal that there is indeed a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. If your idea proves to be popular and generates hit status, then you can be rewarded for those creations.

In many ways, the great promise inherent in technological revolution—digital spectrum, cable channels, the ever-increasing number of apparent outlets—has been defeated by the fact that federal policy has allowed those people who have been gifted with those new channels of distribution the ability to condition access to their airwaves and their cable companies and extract rights with blatant disregard for open and fair competition.

And, absent competition, the creative community can neither get the creative rewards they look for in their work nor the economic rewards they are entitled to.

I can come up with examples of shows that are critically acclaimed and popular right now that are very much not the norm but are deemed a success. Do you see such shows—and
The Sopranos
obviously comes to mind—as a radical departure from the norm? How do you explain the existence of those shows within this world you are describing?

I think The Sopranos
is worth looking at because The Sopranos, remember, was not written for HBO. The Sopranos
was created by David Chase for Fox Broadcasting, when Fox did not own David's company. Therefore, he had the ability to take that completed script when Fox passed on it and pitch it to HBO, a competitive system.

That was certainly the case of almost all the bright moments of television, which was created by a competitive market of producers, writers, and directors whose services could not be boycotted by a given entity that had market power and who were able to fight for what they believed in.

I think that The Sopranos
—a truly great show, which I wish I had my name on—rather than indicating how good the market is, suggests how necessary it is that the competitive dynamic of the market be protected against the predatory demands of ever more-integrated entities. These entities who are now saying with a cold hand to writers that create shows, "We'll own you. We'll own the copyrights to your shows. You'll either accept our notes, or you won't get on our air. And if you are not on our air, you aren't on any air. There's just dead air."

That ability to restrain open and fair and transparent competition in the marketplace is what we see as the greatest detriment, not only to the creative community but to the public at large.

Chuck Fries:
This isn't a new issue with us. Our mission statement goes back many years, prior to any FCC hearings. We've always had concerns about media consolidation. We've always felt consolidation impacted on the public interest and the diversity of television.

It's not just a new idea with us that happened because, all of a sudden, someone said, "Hey, you should have hearings about these telecom issues, these things we haven't even touched on, such as duopoly issues and crossownership of newspapers and broadcast properties." As Caucus members, and all of us have been there a long time, it's always been on our agenda, it's not something new.

The fin-syn rules were eliminated a decade ago, and there has been a great deal of consolidation since. Do you think anything can really change the situation?

Now the rules up for review by the new FCC, chaired by Michael Powell, represent a similar debate to the one that took place in 1990. We are asking the question: Is it in the public interest to continue to maintain a series of regulations, or are we just promulgating new regulations that affect the way our media landscape is formed?

And there are key questions in the rulemaking about duopoly and station-ownership caps that are being brought to a commission that people presume is inherently hostile to the notion of maintaining regulation. We don't make that same presumption.

I believe the commission understands that it is deeply responsible for protecting public assets against predatory private plunder. The spectrum does not belong to the networks. The digital grant of the 1996 Telecommunications Act was in consideration of responsible behavior. And there is an ongoing public need to secure open and competitive markets, as it has been suggested before, to make certain that things that make our society great aren't quieted.

Competition and fair, free, level, open, transparent, dynamic markets have made this country great. And it is all too likely that the deregulation of the airwaves, as so many predict will be the result of the new rulemaking, will lead to a situation rife with self-dealing that will make Arthur Andersen and Enron look like open and fair play.

When you talk about keeping regulations in place, are you equally in support of ownership rules, such as maintaining a 35% cap on ownership of TV stations, or are you more focused on keeping the program-access rules? Are you equally in support of keeping all the media-ownership rules in place?

Fries: We're essentially not just restricting ourselves to the FCC review but to combinations or anything that impacts on the overall entertainment marketplace. We're interested in the quality of television.

When we get into the issue of someone owning a newspaper and TV station in the same city, does that affect the quality of television? Well, probably in a tangential way, yes. Because you are getting the same voice from all places, especially if this is a small town with two TV stations and one newspaper. I think we have an interest to protect the general public. And we are in a position to have a voice because of the things that we have done and the knowledge that we have.

How would a general television viewer look at television today and feel cheated of quality television because of consolidation and vertical integration? How would he or she know?

There's no interest by the studios in independent thinking and independent creativity and independent producers in this present environment. Sure, we're going to find a Steven Bochco and a David E. Kelley, a few of these guys who rise above it all. But, generally speaking, what they are trying to do is educate a new wave of creators in their way of doing business, which means you work for us and we own the product, we control the marketplace and we control your thoughts. Over a period of time, the studios will indoctrinate this thinking into the younger people coming into the business.

A lot of young producers come to me and offer ideas. Most of them are good for cable, but cable is often an area I don't want to get involved in because, in many instances, you can't own your product. And I see fewer and fewer young producers wanting to look at the long haul like we have in the past and they tend to give up.

There is something inherently wrong in this country where we extinguish the entrepreneurial spirit that has driven creators to fight for their ideas and replace it with agendas determined by those invested in corporate brands.

You ask, how does the public know about it? In many ways, they don't, but, in many ways they do: When they see the 6 o'clock news transformed not into an information program but into an informational program for prime time, or when they see shows repurposed on cable rather than cable being a new way to see different shows. Networks that are owned by production companies that own cable companies are taking programs off networks and three days later putting them on cable services.

That doesn't create new options and new viewing opportunities. I think the public smells a rat, and that rat is the cancer of conflicted interest engaged in self-dealing, determined to brand everything but we're losing diversity in the process.

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.