Writers want FCC action

Jan 14, 2002  •  Post A Comment

In an effort to stimulate demand for their services, Hollywood’s TV screenwriters last week urged the federal government to adopt new regulations that would restrict how many broadcast and cable networks a company can own and would limit use of network-owned shows.
“It does not promote a diversity of voices for conglomerates to own a dozen or more major networks,” said the Writers Guilds of America, East and West, in a joint filing at the Federal Communications Commission last week. “If A.J. Liebling is correct that, `Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one,’ then we have big problems in television.”
One of the major problems in the TV marketplace these days, according to the writers, is that there is no limit on the number of networks a single company can own. (There is a rule still on the books that precludes joint ownership of two of the top four broadcast networks, however.)
In addition, in the wake of FCC deregulation over the past decade, there are no restrictions on a network’s ability to favor its own productions-or to acquire financial interests in the productions of others.
In their filing, the scribes said that means a handful of media conglomerates now control the nation’s major TV networks (AOL Time Warner alone has interests in 19 networks, for instance), giving them a virtual stranglehold over the Hollywood creative community’s product.
“Freedom in television belongs to a small group of corporations,” the groups said. “Do we really want them deciding what we all get to see on TV?”
One of the leading theories behind FCC deregulation over the years has been that competition among an ever-increasing number of cable networks would check network power. But according to the writers, the consolidation in ownership of those networks has blown a hole in the competitive safety net.
A major beef among writers is that broadcast networks are selling syndication rights for broadcast shows to their own cable networks at a “suspiciously low and uncompetitive price, thus depriving all writers who share in the proceeds the benefit of a fair share of a fair sale.”
In addition, the groups called for new regulations that would limit how much network-produced programming a network can use and would require networks to buy from more than one outside supplier.
“At least if they have to buy from others, and more than a few sources, they’ll have to shop around,” the groups said. “Program producers need more doors to knock on with their pitch if one network says no.”
In response, a network executive said the writers had not presented sufficient cause to re-regulate.
“The premise is that if you have a show that is decent, there are enough networks around that you will be able to make a deal with someone,” the executive said.
On a related note, the writers urged the FCC to block EchoStar Communications’ acquisition of DirecTV. “With the economic impediment to cable overbuilds, the continued separation of EchoStar and DirecTV is the only hope of having three competitors for television service to the typical home,” the writers said. “Three is vitally better than two.”
Also in their FCC filing, the writers urged the agency to:
* Retain a cap barring cable companies from owning systems reaching more than 30 percent of the nation’s subscribers.
* Beef up a regulation that bars cable operators from filling more than 40 percent of their channel capacity with their own programming.
* Hold hearings in Hollywood to consider the concerns that representatives of the creative community have about additional deregulation.