How Networks Can (and Do) Stifle Producers


It is obvious from reading the column by Harry Jessell ("Voices and Choices," Jan. 20, 2003) that he has never had the experience of trying to guide a new television program over the deadly shoals and sharp rocks of network development. He sees the upcoming hearings to review the remaining station-ownership rules as a matter for the Justice Department, not the FCC, stating that he will need to see some "concrete evidence that the extraordinary amount of media consolidation over the years has significantly diminished the good old marketplace of ideas."

I will try to enlighten him.

To begin with, I created or co-created over 40 prime time network shows from 1973 to 1999. In 1981, I formed the Cannell Studios, a solely owned, stand-alone company with no studio or financial partnerships.

The Cannell Studios became the third-largest supplier of television programming in Hollywood, until I was forced to sell because of the FCC's repeal of the Financial Interest and Syndication rules.

I am not here to quibble over the loss of my life's dream. The FCC commissioners told me that I had nothing to fear from the repeal of these rules. But it soon became clear that it was impossible to sell programs to my competitors.

Mr. Jessell sees no evidence of blandness of content caused by consolidation. I beg to differ.

In 1976, while under contract to Universal Studios, I wrote a pilot for ABC called The Rockford Files. The script was about a detective who was the ultimate pragmatist. When threatened by heavies, he would simply quit. He also insisted on being paid, often arguing about his fee with prospective clients. I thought all of this made the character very fresh and funny. ABC, on the other hand, hated the script, refusing to let us photograph it with these elements in place. Since Universal, not ABC, owned the screenplay, we held our ground and walked away. We eventually added Jim Garner and set it up at NBC, where it went on to become a huge, creative and Nielsen hit, named the best detective show in television history by TV Guide
in 2001.

If this had happened today, I would have most likely been working for ABC or a Disney production arm. Once the disagreement over content occurred, I would have been replaced, and another writer working under network supervision would have turned my screenplay into dust.

Another example: In 1990, Steve Kronish and I created a pilot idea, using as the template a personal friend of ours who was the commissioner of police in Rye, N.Y. Our friend was a short, round, Italian bundle of energy with a pixie smile and a totally unique way of doing police work. We sold the idea to CBS and wrote a screenplay called The Commish. CBS loved the script and ordered the pilot, "subject to casting." It soon became clear that they did not want a short, round, middle-age character actor in the title role. They wanted a handsome Italian, several times mentioning Jack Scalia (a fine actor but, in our opinion, all wrong for the part).

I brought a succession of character actors in to read for CBS. The list ranged from Academy Award winner Ned Beatty to a brilliant newcomer named Michael Chiklis. We missed the pilot season and were still arguing well into the following year. Steve and I were determined to preserve our vision. Finally, I suggested to CBS that we not do the project. They agreed.

The Cannell Studios, not CBS Productions, owned the script. One year later, Steve Kronish and I were able to set up The Commish
at ABC with Michael Chiklis attached to star. The series was programmed and became the time-period winner, surviving on ABC for five seasons. Had the current rules been in effect, I would have been working for CBS from the start. They would have cast whomever they wanted, and Steve's and my content vision would have been ignored.

If all this reads like ancient history, let's fast-forward. My final example is not a show from the Cannell Studios, but The Sopranos, created by David Chase. This project was originally written for Fox. When they "didn't get it," it was unsuccessfully shopped at all the other networks.

In view of my previous stories, you can imagine why that show never found its way onto the air. The reasons all of the networks gave not to do it are all too familiar to those of us who create content for network television. "Does Tony Soprano really have to be a middle-age, overweight, Italian on Prozac? Can't he be younger and better-looking? Has anybody got Jack Scalia's phone number?" Since Brillstein-Grey owned David Chase's script, it was able to move The Sopranos
to HBO, where it went on to redefine the face of television.

The aforementioned shows all managed to survive network meddling and demands because the underlying rights were owned by other entities. How many fresh, innovative ideas have been destroyed by these now unregulated, vertically integrated monoliths? My guess is plenty. But take heart, America. We can at least sit back and enjoy all this new, low-cost, network-spawned reality television.

Not a content issue? Get serious, Mr. Jessell.