Mouse roars on fin-syn, news quality

Spurred by an independent-producer effort to reimpose financial interest
and syndication rules (fin-syn) and stung
by a study critical of owned-and-operated TV-news operations, The Walt Disney Co. and ABC have weighed in on
the media-concentration issue in Washington, D.C., to "set the record

Led by ABC TV president Alex Wallau, several network executives were in Washington
Tuesday to make their case to the Federal Communications Commission members that
"there is no legal or competitive basis for reimposing the financial interest
and syndication rules." Those rules limited networks' financial participation in
their prime-time programming and its syndication.

Last month, a coalition of independent producers pushed for their
reimposition or the creation of a set-aside of 25 percent of network prime time
for unaffiliated productions.

At the same time, the Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study
suggesting that greater concentration of ownership led to decreased news quality.

Disney has been relatively quiet on the ownership issue, since at 24 percent
penetration, it is well under the 35 percent TV-station audience-reach cap that
is the key element for the other big networks and their station groups.

"We've been dragged in sideways on collateral issues," executive vice
president Preston Padden told reporters in a sit-down between FCC appointments,
citing the fin-syn revival effort and the "ridiculous notion" that local
newscasts on network-owned stations are not of high quality.

To counter that contention, Disney brought Dave Davis, president and general manager and
former news director of its WPVI(TV) Philadelphia, whose newscast is a ratings
and quality leader in the market, Padden said.

Disney -- which argued for reimposing the fin-syn rules before it bought
pipeline ABC -- now argues that the multiplicity of options for programming means
that the networks have since lost market power and producers have many networks,
particularly cable, to turn to. Wallau said his network is being "nibbled to
death" by 300 cable networks.

Wallau called the attempt to reimpose fin-syn "unbelievable."

In a Feb. 5 filing, Universal Studios suggested that the repeal of fin-syn in 1993
has led to a reduction of diversity and quality of broadcast-network

Wallau countered, saying that network quality was "unprecedented," citing a raft
of shows on his and other networks (none reality, however). "There has never
been a greater diversity of content or quality," he said.

Disney also took issue with the portrait of struggling independent producers.
"There has never been a time in controlling costs when we have had more problems
with the above-the-line costs of some of the people who are complaining about
this issue," he added.

Wallau cited John Wells as one of the complainants who, at the same time, has
signed a production deal with Warner Bros. worth $70 million.

Wallau suggested that even when a network has a financial interest, the
relationship may be more complicated than a statistic on network participation
could convey.

He again cited Wells, saying Disney-owned Touchstone Television spent $5 million to $6
million on The Court with Sally Field, went to pilot and didn't like the
pilot, so the show didn't make the schedule.

When ABC found out that Wells' shop wanted to take a crack at it, "We gave it
to them, despite our investment -- because we have such a need to compete with
quality -- and said, 'Go with God.'"

Also making the rounds in Washington for ABC were Mark Pedowitz and Spencer
Neumann, executive VPs at ABC Television Network.

John Eggerton

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.