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Picturing Profits, Not Plots

November 03, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY

Who owns a television show--and thus stands to make money if a series becomes the next "Seinfeld" or "Home Improvement"--generally interests only those people who obsess over who ranks where on Entertainment Weekly's list of Hollywood power players. Fans of "ER" and "Friends" care about those shows being there for them each Thursday; they don't care how Warner Bros. has cashed in selling rerun rights.

That said, business issues have a way of intruding upon creativity, influencing what gets and stays on the air. Since the elimination of federal rules governing how many programs the networks can produce, stories have repeatedly surfaced about networks bullying outside suppliers and favoring their own programs, such as NBC's not-so-Must-See sitcoms "Union Square" and "The Single Guy." On the flip side, studios and stars have gouged networks when it came time to renew shows they desperately need, like "ER" and the cast of "Seinfeld."

All told, the television industry seems fraught with conflict and increasingly preoccupied with who owns what, at a time--based on declining ratings and the tepid response to the new crop of series--when paying more attention to the programs themselves would appear to be in order.

Lost in the midst of all this high-powered corporate jockeying are the independent producers, whose ranks have thinned to near-extinction. Facing vertically integrated monoliths that produce, distribute and televise programs, many independents have either been acquired by those vast companies or simply thrown in the towel.

The irony is that both the networks and studios argued that they were the last best hope for independent suppliers when the Federal Communications Commission reviewed the rules that largely kept networks out of the syndication marketplace.

"If the rules were repealed and we could flexibly support new creative talent in the same way that studios can today, the public would benefit through more innovative and diverse programming, programming that could be produced without the big-studio trademark associated with it," ABC President Robert Iger told FCC commissioners in December 1990.

Added NBC President Robert Wright: "It is in our self-interest to do everything we can to promote a strong independent production community. . . . We believe the natural incentives of the networks are the best guarantee that independent producers will flourish."

So what happened? Eight years later, ABC is part of the Walt Disney Co., which supplies much of the network's programming, including "The Wonderful World of Disney," virtually the entire Saturday morning children's lineup and periodic specials touting Disney's theme parks and movies. Fox, Warner Bros. and Paramount also have interests in broadcast networks.

NBC, meanwhile, has made clear that the network wants to own more of its prime-time schedule, both to share in profits and to prevent future situations like the "ER" renewal. This spurred a feud with major studios, which indicated that they would shop programs elsewhere, depriving NBC of access to the writing talent under contract to them.

In short, things are pretty well screwed up. The equation has shifted to provide the networks more freedom, but certainly without fostering diversity, as a handful of companies still control the vast majority of programs and channels seen on television.

Some veteran producers insist that letting the networks wield greater influence over production has a deleterious effect on programming, which gets back to the question of how who owns the copyright to shows potentially affects the viewer.

"We have made only one network movie [in recent years], and I don't think I want to make any more under these circumstances," said Alan Landsburg, whose credits include the TV movies "Adam" (about "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh's missing child) and "Bill," which won an Emmy for Mickey Rooney.

"Any time you layer the process with salaried, staff employees, you run the risk of homogenizing product," Landsburg said. "It comes down to that funnel, and that funnel is very narrow. Its prejudices are hard and in place. . . . Finally, every show begins to look alike."

Leonard Hill, once one of the industry's most prolific made-for-TV movie producers, has been an outspoken network critic and hasn't produced a movie in nearly two years.

Asked why a casual TV viewer--my mother, for instance--should care about these issues, Hill said, "If your mother asked why are the shows so numbingly the same, where are the shows that have a unique voice, part of the answer is that networks have started to regulate who can play the game, and if you don't belong to them . . . you're denied real access to the game."

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