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Nets’ Position on Ownership Hard to Defend

Mar 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Network executives have been tripping over each other in Washington lately as they file onto the Beltway to voice their feelings on program ownership. Their top priority: squelching the latest effort by the Hollywood creative community to slap restrictions on the amount of network programming the nets can own.
CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves, ABC President Alex Wallau and Preston Padden, executive VP for government relations for ABC parent The Walt Disney Co., were among those lobbying the Federal Communications Commission last week to counter efforts by guilds, independent producers and other industry segments to resurrect regulations along the lines of the fin-syn restrictions that were thrown out in the mid-1990s.
The argument for ownership restrictions is a familiar one: If the networks end up owning all their own programming, independent voices will be silenced. Among the other impacts of such a development, programming would become more homogenized and hit shows would become more rare, which would in turn hurt not just studios but also viewers, advertisers, networks and, indeed, the whole industry.
The argument against the rules is also not new: The networks like owning their own shows because it gives them a better chance to make money through repurposing and syndication. Besides, they say they already buy a lot of programming from outside their corporate families, so what’s all the fuss about? And as Mr. Moonves argued recently in TelevisionWeek (March 10), producing shows is expensive and most of them fail. “Are they [the studios] willing to step up for that?” he asked.
Clearly they are. A spot in the major networks’ prime-time lineup remains the Holy Grail of the TV business, carrying with it the promise of unimaginable riches for anyone who produces the next West Wing or Seinfeld. And the indie studios are among the most vocal members of the Coalition for Program Diversity, the group that is leading the drive to re-examine program ownership.
The fin-syn issue is probably moot, given the deregulatory mood prevailing in Washington. FCC Chairman Michael Powell, whose support would be crucial to any attempt to impose new rules, pretty much declared the resuscitation effort dead on arrival.
We believe that is unfortunate. If the networks are correct, and economic forces will keep them from insisting on owning every show they air, then rules with reasonable limits should not be an impediment to the way they do business or to their future growth. Such rules would help ensure there is a place for independent voices, diversity and new players in the media mix. We know that without rules, the move toward consolidation that has changed the face of the TV business over the past decade will simply continue. We believe it is the right time for regulators and lawmakers to give serious consideration to fin-syn as one way of heading off the negative impacts of having too much media power concentrated in too few hands.