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Talent seeks limit on show ownership

Jun 17, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The Caucus for Television Producers, Writers & Directors has asked the Federal Communications Commission to adopt regulations limiting the ability of national broadcast and cable TV systems to take financial interests in the programming they carry.
Absent any limits, the major TV networks and their Hollywood studio partners have regularly been demanding-and getting-copyright and distribution rights as the price for putting shows on their broadcast systems, squashing independent production, the caucus said.
“Unregulated operators have extorted control over program content and program copyright as the price of admission to their closed shops,” the caucus said in a June 7 letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell that was released last week.
“In order to maximize the number of voices available to the American public, the commission should begin to untangle the intertwined webs between transmission, distribution and production,” the caucus continued.
The caucus specifically recommended that the agency adopt a rule that would bar cable systems and national broadcast networks from acquiring interests in more than 30 percent of the shows or program services they carry.
The rule also would prohibit cable systems from filling more than 15 percent of their channel capacity with commonly owned networks. In addition, the proposed regulation would bar cable and direct broadcast satellite systems that reach more than 30 percent of the total cable universe from having financial interests in any program services.
Under the agency’s old financial interest and syndication rules, the FCC strictly limited the ability of broadcast networks to produce in-house, syndicate or take financial interests in the programming they air.
Studio-network juggernauts
But in the almost 10 years since the rules were thrown out, five of the six major TV networks (all but NBC) have been acquired by four major Hollywood studios: AOL Time Warner owns The WB Network, The Walt Disney Co. owns ABC, Fox has Fox Broadcasting Co., and Viacom is parent to CBS and UPN.
The same companies, according to the caucus, have interests in more than 50 of the nation’s top cable networks, adding to their leverage over independent TV producers.
“The cross-ownership of content and distribution that has come to characterize the American media marketplace has crushed the independent, creative entrepreneur,” the caucus said. “The inherent promise of new technology has been tarnished and broken by the immense control of new media by vertically and horizontally integrated bully boys.”
At deadline last week, the FCC and The Walt Disney Co. had no comment on the letter. Representatives of Viacom, NBC and Fox did not return telephone calls.
But a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said, “Increased competition in the distribution and content businesses have spawned more choices and more sources of programming for TV viewers than ever before.”
FCC also concerned
On a related front, the FCC’s Mr. Powell last week said the agency had agreed to look into concerns about the power of the networks in the programming marketplace.
In a May 22 letter to the agency, a coalition of key lawmakers led by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., made clear their concern about network clout and asked the agency to launch a wide-ranging investigation into the impact consolidation has had on the programming marketplace.
Said Mr. Powell in an interview last week: “His [Sen. Hollings’] concerns will be addressed.”
The chairman also said he is planning to notify Sen. Hollings and the other coalition members-Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and Sen. Herbert Kohl, D-Wis.-late last week. “Studies that we’re initiating will expand to take [into] account their concerns,” Mr. Powell added.
An FCC source said the programming power issues would be included in studies the agency is already planning as part of an ongoing review of its media ownership regulations.
But a source said the launch of the study didn’t constitute an endorsement for re-regulation. “We’re still at the research and information-gathering stage,” an FCC source said.