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Beware of the Big Squeeze

August 01, 2001|BRIAN LOWRY

Court TV Chairman Henry Schleiff recently spoke to a gathering of independent producers and told them three little words they long to hear.

We need you.

"There is a clear need on our part to keep you people in business," Schleiff said during a panel of cable executives cobbled together by the Caucus for Television Producers, Writers & Directors. "We need you as our partners. ... We need you to survive."

Mind you, these weren't A-list writer-producers, those in the David E. Kelley-John Wells income bracket, whose services have been purchased by Viacom, Warner Bros. or Fox; rather, the room was filled by a ragtag band of independents who lost the legislative war to keep networks and studios from squeezing them out of the production business--a resistance army that wound up forced into retreat and living in caves, only these caves are located in Beverly Hills and Bel-Air.

For that reason and others, the plight of disenfranchised producers has seldom generated much attention or sympathy, and their cause was easy to ignore by a public far removed from the battlefield, with the siege taking place in corporate boardrooms or over-priced restaurants.

As it turns out, though, what happened to small producers could provide a preview of coming attractions as media companies keep growing bigger and bulkier, banging into one another in ways that can inflict collateral damage even on the uninterested consumer.

In that context, those producers yelling, "The sky is falling!" a decade ago suddenly look more prescient than paranoid. Because as writer Larry Gelbart detailed in the HBO movie satire "Weapons of Mass Distraction," the media business has become a game of Monopoly played with real buildings--or rather, real networks, cable systems, TV stations and sports franchises.

A case in point would be the current battle between News Corp. and AOL Time Warner's Southern California cable systems over a surcharge on Dodgers and Angels telecasts on the regional Fox Sports channels--a big-money face-off that prompted the cable operator to drop those games.

The tussle mirrors an ugly showdown last year in which Time Warner temporarily dropped ABC at the outset of the May ratings sweeps--depriving several million homes access to everything from anchor Peter Jennings to "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"--over a similar dispute with ABC parent the Walt Disney Co., which retaliated by offering to give away satellite dishes to Time Warner subscribers.

In short, even casual viewers have become increasingly cognizant of media giants' machinations, having occasionally been caught in the middle as companies throw their weight around. Moreover, these corporate behemoths appear destined to undergo another growth spurt as regulatory barriers topple like redwoods under the Bush administration.

Just consider some of the headlines in recent weeks. The Federal Communications Commission said it would forge ahead with reforms that will facilitate further consolidation of media ownership. These include allowing a single entity to own more television stations, including two outlets in the same city, as well as a newspaper and TV station--as Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV, does locally.

The FCC also cleared the way for Fox's acquisition of Chris-Craft Television, providing the company control of two TV stations in Los Angeles, with both KTTV-TV and KCOP-TV (channels 11 and 13, respectively) under its aegis. Though the company's precise plans for cross-pollinating the two remain vague, it's a fair guess KCOP--to recall one of its marketing slogans--won't be so "very independent" anymore.

Those seeking a clue as to what all this might mean would be well-advised to examine what's transpiring in radio, which has already undergone near-wholesale deregulation. The result has been a flurry of mergers, less local programming in favor of nationally syndicated hosts and big companies using clout to dominate various aspects of the marketplace.

At the same time the FCC moved toward further unfettering television, for example, Clear Channel Communications--which owns, in what must look like a misprint, nearly 1,200 U.S. radio stations--threatened to drop Arbitron, which provides the industry standard with radio ratings.

Given that Clear Channel is Arbitron's biggest customer, accounting for more than a fifth of the ratings service's revenue, the gambit caught its attention--with Clear Channel telling Arbitron, in essence, we might just take our ball and start a whole new game.

The principle employed here is precisely the same as the one that massive entertainment companies have applied in dealings with producers, advertisers and, for that matter, the public: Get big enough, control enough of the players, and you can pretty much make your own rules.

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