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Universal: Check out nets' prime-time headlock

Universal Television, owned by No. 2 media conglomerate Vivendi Universal,
has joined the ranks of mostly independent producers urging the federal government to
investigate whether the increasing dominance of network-produced prime-time
shows harms the TV industry.

In the last three weeks, Universal executives, including group president David
Goldhill, have met with leaders of the House and Senate Commerce Committees and
senior Federal Communications Commisson staff to complain about the increasing
difficulty non-network producers experience selling prime-time shows.

Their complaints show that even the biggest media companies -- Vivendi's
revenue tops $30 billion and its TV holdings also include USA Network and Sci Fi
Channel -- are having trouble breaking the networks' prime-time grip.

Universal's complaints follow a petition filed by independents Sony Pictures
Television and Carsey-Werner-Mandabach last month.

The two producers are part of a coalition that also includes unions for
writers, actors and directors and ad agency MediaCom.

Also seeking to loosen the networks' grip on prime time is the Caucus for
Television Producers, Writers and Directors.

So far, Universal isn't backing the other groups' call to revive limits on
networks' in-house share of prime time, but it is simply urging policymakers to
recognize that a problem exists.

"We're asking officials to look at how the television market has changed for
independents, but we're not pushing a solution," said a Universal executive.
"Although we're part of much bigger company, we're still finding it difficult to
crack into prime time."

In a Feb. 5 FCC filing, Universal asserted that the rising share of
network-owned or affiliated programming has diminished the "diversity and
quality of broadcast-network television" since the 1993 repeal of financial
interest and syndication rules limiting network-owned prime-time shows.