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Indie TV Studio Still Goes It Alone

The media industry's rapid consolidation hasn't diverted Carsey-Werner-Mandabach from its maverick ways

October 19, 2003|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

These days, the TV business has the look of an old western: Four or five big guns own all of the land. Failed projects blow down Main Street like tumbleweeds. And nearly all of the producers in town have circled their wagons around studios that are tied to a major network.

Only one maverick firm remains: Carsey-Werner-Mandabach.

The independent production company that created such colossal hits as "The Cosby Show" and "Roseanne" continues to buck the trend in a rapidly consolidating media landscape.

After nearly two decades making TV shows that have generated nearly $3 billion in revenue, the boutique studio run by Marcy Carsey and partners Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach is rolling the dice in a big way this season: It has three prime-time comedies on different networks and two waiting in the wings.

"You really have to have a gambler's heart to be an independent producer, particularly these days," said Carsey, co-founder of the firm based in Studio City.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 08, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
TV studio -- An Oct. 19 article in the Business section about independent TV studio Carsey- Werner-Mandabach incorrectly stated that the company invested as an equity partner in Oxygen Media, a cable network. In fact, the company's principals -- Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach -- have individually invested in Oxygen.

If government regulators approve General Electric Co.'s plan to buy Vivendi Universal's entertainment assets, the last of the unattached networks, GE's NBC, will pair up with Universal Television. That will leave only two Hollywood studios that produce scripted shows -- Sony Pictures Television and Carsey-Werner-Mandabach -- that are independent from a network.

Chances are slim that new firms will spring up, industry veterans say.

"No one can afford to get into independent production these days," said John Connolly, president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

Networks have been racing to marry companies that own studios ever since the elimination in 1995 of federal rules that prohibited broadcasters from profiting from the shows they air. Now, if broadcast networks can keep their shows on the air long enough to be sold into syndication, they stand to reap the fortune that used to go to independent producers.

Without deep pockets, few independents can afford to bet their own money producing scripted programs, particularly since more than three-quarters of new shows fail. Half-hour comedies typically cost more than $1 million an episode to produce and hour-long dramas about $2.2 million.

Critics say the networks' grip on production is strangling creativity and diversity, leading to a dearth of quality programming. They note that some of the most popular shows on television, including "Friends," "Law & Order," "ER" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" were created by producers and studios that were independent of the networks.

"The networks no longer have an incentive to put the best shows on the air," said Jon Mandel, co-chief executive of advertising buying firm Mediacom, who helped form the Coalition for Program Diversity. "They're putting on the ones that have the potential for the highest margins, the ones they can monetize across all of their owned networks."

Some groups, including the Writers Guild of America, have asked Congress to mandate that networks buy more scripted prime-time shows from independents to create more opportunities for upstarts. This fall, the six major networks together own 77% of prime-time shows, and unscripted shows make up the bulk of the rest, according to the Coalition for Program Diversity.

Mandel said networks are too focused on reaching the same audience: young adults aged 18 to 49, the demographic that advertisers pay the most to reach. And that, Mandel and other critics say, leads network executives to select safe concepts and shows that look alike.

By contrast, Carsey-Werner-Mandabach has specialized in the offbeat.

This fall, the studio's big project is "Whoopi," a show about a brassy, politically incorrect innkeeper and her handyman from Iran. NBC picked up the show starring Whoopi Goldberg largely because it pokes fun at topics that other sit-coms avoid. Although "Whoopi" has gotten off to a wobbly start, the network -- and the studio -- say they are hopeful it is finding its legs.

If the show fails, it wouldn't be the studio's first dud. It has birthed several short-lived series, including "Normal, Ohio" with John Goodman and the animated "God, the Devil and Bob," in which God looked a little like Jerry Garcia, the late Grateful Dead guitarist. Last year, with just two shows on the air, the company was forced to lay off about two dozen employees.

Some networks, including Viacom Inc.'s CBS, don't do much business with the firm. Executives there point to such pricey and high-profile disappointments as the "Cosby" re-do that CBS bought in 1996. Others complain the studio's shows sometimes suffer because it gives its sometimes-difficult stars too much latitude.

But many networks are only too eager to partner with the studio.

News Corp.'s Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman says she immediately calls the studio when she's rustling up new concepts and shows. "I say: "What have you got for us?" Berman said. "There's no one else that I'd rather work with."

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