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Independent Producers Call for Network, Cable Set-Asides

In advance of the Senate Commerce Committee's hearing on media ownership Thursday, independent filmmakers sent a letter to the chair and ranking members of the committee calling for legislators to pressure the Federal Communications Commission into adopting a 75% cap on self-produced programming for both broadcast and cable networks.

Independent producers -- Steven J. Cannell, notably -- have been weighing in at various FCC media-ownership hearings about the dwindling opportunities for airplay, citing the FCC's dropping of the financial interest and syndication rules (Fin/Syn), which prevented broadcast networks from owning a financial interest in the domestic syndication of their primetime shows.

In its letter, the Independent Film and Television Alliance called the 75% cap modest and argued that independently produced shows like All in the Family and The Cosby Show would be blocked from competing on a level playing field today by "major media conglomerates" favoring their own co-owned production companies.

The IFTA pointed out that the percentage of independent productions on the networks has dropped from 50% in 1995 to 18%.

The letter, from IFTA president Jean Prewitt to Senate Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and ranking member Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), follows:

Dear Sens. Inouye and Stevens:

On behalf of the Independent Film and TelevisionAlliance, which represents independent film and television producers and has more than 180 members, I would like to submit this letter for the record. These companies, which produce and distribute entertainment programming that is financed outside of the seven majorU.S.studios, are responsible for more than 400 films each year and countless hours of television programming. Collectively, they generate more than $4 billion in distribution revenues annually. Since 1980, more than one-half of the Academy Award winners for best picture have been produced or distributed by IFTA members, including this year’s The Departed, last year’s Crash and the prior year’s Lord of the Rings and Million Dollar Baby.

IFTA commends the committee for holding this hearing and for its continued oversight on the important issue of media consolidation. IFTA would like to call the committee’s attention to an important aspect of this debate: the inability of independent producers to distribute their product today in the television marketplace through either broadcast or cable networks. Source diversity has been virtually eliminated in American television, and the loser is the American viewer.

IFTA has filed comments at the FCC, calling on the FCC to examine this aspect of media consolidation and to reinstitute regulatory safeguards to restore competition and diversity. IFTA urges this committee to encourage the FCC to address the issue of source diversity in the pending media-ownership proceeding
. This guidance is particularly important in light of the FCC’s decision in the previous biennial review to defer action on this issue.

Since the elimination of the Financial Interest in Syndication Rules (Fin/Syn) and their related consent decree, there has been a sea change in the television marketplace. Through the early 1990s, for example, independent production companies were able to sell programming to broadcast networks. This provided diverse, high-quality programming to the American public. From 1980 to the demise of Fin/Syn in the early 1990s, nearly one-half of the Emmys given for “Best Drama” and “Best Comedy” series were awarded to independent producers. Since then, independent production has fallen from 50% in 1995 to only 18% of primetime programming today.

Independents are currently only able to sell their products to networks at below-cost prices and are forced to relinquish syndication rights. Additionally, major television networks have stopped acquiring independent feature films or movies-of-the-week for broadcast. And, a number of IFTA members have been by networks or cable channels that they would no longer acquire independently produced children’s programming or family films unless ownership rights are included and they can control its content with “traditional” family themes being expressly out of favor. As a result, many members have been forced to abandon production of this type of programming.

As a result of the easing of program diversity regulation, there has been a decline in quality, creativity and diversity of programming. IFTA respectfully requests that Congress encourage the FCC to reinstitute reasonable regulation to ensure program diversity. Specifically, IFTA seeks a 75% cap on the amount of self-produced network programming that major broadcast and cable networks may distribute. Without such action, independent voices will continue to be silenced and the diversity of programming for the American viewer will continue to decline.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.