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Jean Prewitt's Fight for Independent TV

Jean Prewitt, president of the Independent Film & Television Alliance, represents 160 companies that produce TV programming and films such as Crash, Million Dollar Baby and Shakespeare In Love. But given the current economic and regulatory climate, Prewitt suggested that the question now is whether independents get to be or not to be.

The IFTA ramped up its lobbying on issues like network neutrality and access to programming networks, Prewitt said, because independents are being effectively shut out.

Prewitt spoke with B&C’s John Eggerton about the IFTA’s boosted profile in Washington, price controls and the Federal Communications Commission. Following is an edited transcript.

Q: What are the IFTA’s chief TV-related issues in Washington?

A: Over the past decade, independent programming has rapidly been eliminated from broadcast and increasingly from cable. Both of those phenomena we lay at the doorstep of media consolidation and vertical integration. We have one batch of concerns that relate to today’s marketplace, which still remains very TV-driven. You really need a U.S. TV deal to drive your foreign sales. But then the second tier of that issue relates to the Internet, where we can see the same drama playing out again. We have ended up being very active on the network-neutrality issue.

Q: The IFTA has boosted its profile in Washington lately.

A: Over the past 24-36, months there has been a shutdown even on basic-cable channels of purchasing independently produced product. We started out being able, up through 2002, to sell to HBO and similar channels, then we really couldn’t do that because in 2002, HBO said it would not buy independent programming any longer. Now basic channels are increasingly either not willing to buy or only willing to buy on unacceptable terms, including turning over back-end rights with no increase in consideration.

Q: If the regulatory fairy could grant you one wish, what would it be?

A: It would be to require the integrated networks to purchase a fair quantity of independently produced product at a fair price.

Q: Are you talking about price controls?

A: No, but you don’t want the buyers to come in and buy only very low-end reality programming and call that “independent,” and buy only expensive programming from themselves. The guilds at some point were toying with a request for a quota of scripted programming. We asked for a cap on internally produced programming that any channel could broadcast.

Q: Are you at all comforted by the FCC’s decision to cite Comcast for content blocking?

A: I think it’s the right move. But until we see it, we won’t know whether or not it really provides all of the protections we think are needed.

Q: Do you have any qualms about inviting the government in to regulate broadcasting, cable and maybe even the Internet?

A: You always have qualms about regulation. But the fact is, today, our membership is being driven out of that marketplace.

Q: How important is Internet distribution to the future of independent programming in general?

A: It should be pivotal. It should be the place where the things that the independents are good at most heavily come into play. They are good at creating new forms of programming. They are good at creating programming that involved diverse viewpoints, less popular ideas. At this point, there is no money being made, but it is critically important that the independent opportunity to make a home on the Internet is protected. We are concerned that we are seeing efforts by Comcast or others to lock up the Internet, either in a way that discriminates against certain types of services or, frankly, which would allow a Comcast -- I apologize for overusing the name, but it is on everyone’s tongue right now -- to enter into exclusive agreements for particular types of content, which is then given preferential carriage treatment.

Q: What are the prospects for a Screen Actors Guild strike?

A: I don’t know. SAG has behaved differently than the Writers Guild [of America] did. They have extended interim deals to the majority of the independent companies that have asked for them, so our members are essentially proceeding ahead.

Q: And if there is a strike?

A: I think that it would affect any member that is looking to a major studio for distribution. There is going to be a big issue with films and how they come to the marketplace -- even if they were produced under an interim agreement or in another way. But beyond that, this is an industry that has enormous economic problems. It is difficult for any company, particularly an independent, to find channels of distribution; difficult to put together production financing given the overall economics. The strike just adds more people who aren’t making a living in an industry that is supposed to be the showpiece of Los Angeles, and that’s bad for everyone. I think that if you look at what was lost through the Writers Guild strike, and then you assume that at least that much, if not more, would take place in a SAG strike, you are simply undermining the services that make the industry happen in L.A., from the dry cleaners to the postproduction houses and everyone else.