Broadcast networks are feeling renewed pressure from Washington to air independent productions on their prime time schedules. The push is led by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, who is fulfilling a promise to investigate complaints about the grip that the networks' in-house studios hold on prime time.
Earlier this month, he corralled more than a dozen network executives and members of the creative community as the first step in negotiating a voluntary agreement between the two sides. The talks were held Jan. 6 at the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills, Calif.
McCain and his House counterpart, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) planned the get-together in June, modeled after industry roundtables Tauzin conducted to force agreements between warring industries over digital television. In those previous meetings, Tauzin used the threat of legislation to broker agreements on cable-ready DTVs and methods for stopping illegal retransmissions of TV shows over the Internet.
For now, the lawmakers are avoiding explicit threats of legislation, but sources following the talks say the prospect of a statutory prime time carve-out for shows produced by non-network studios is implied by McCain.
"McCain is fairly unpredictable, and no network executive should be cavalier about his intentions," said someone who attended the meeting. Another round of talks is planned, although no date has been set.
A McCain spokeswoman said the Arizona Republican so far has not discussed the possibility of legislation with his staff. "He went into this meeting simply to get information."
Network executives participating in the talks: Alex Wallau, ABC network president; Mark Pedowitz, executive vice president of ABC Entertainment Television Group; Les Moonves; CBS chairman; Marc Graboff, NBC West Coast executive vice president; and Gary Newman, of 20th Century Fox Television.
On the other side of the table were six leading independent producers, directors and writers: producer/writer Steve Cannell, whose credits include Hunter, The A Team, The Rockford Files
and Wiseguy; Marcy Carsey, head of Carsey-Werner studio; Marshall Herskovitz, producer of The Last Samurai; Charles Holland, JAG
writer; Lionel Chetwynd, The Siege at Ruby Ridge;
and actor Warren Beatty.
Tauzin did not attend. He is rumored to be in line to replace Jack Valenti as the head of the Motion Picture Association of America and could have a conflict of interest by talking with the studios. His top telecom aide, Neil Freid, was there, however.
The creative types at the meeting were representing several unions and trade groups that have asked Congress to set a 25% quota for the amount of prime time programming lineups that must be set aside for production companies outside the networks' control. Among the groups are the Writers Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the Directors Guild and the Screen Actors Guild.
"There's increasing recognition among elected officials that this issue resonates with the American public," said Rebecca Rhine, AFTRA assistant national executive director for public policy. "Broadcast television and radio are the sole sources of information and entertainment for millions of Americans."
McCain's decision to call the meeting prompted Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to drop plans for carve-out legislation last summer.
Regulators are also examining the issue. Prompted by complaints from the creative community, the Federal Trade Commission is investigating the impact NBC's takeover of Universal Studios will have on independent programming as part of the agency's review of the NBC/Vivendi deal.
The independent community complains that prime time lineups have suffered a steady decline in quality and diversity since the judges, in the mid 90s, tossed out the old financial-interest and syndication (fin-syn) rules limiting the networks' in-house programming. The creative community believes revived rules would survive a new court challenge because they have collected data they say indicates that diversity has been harmed. That kind of evidence was lacking when the court ruled.
Since repeal of fin-syn, networks' share of in-house prime time shows climbed from 15% to roughly 77% in 2002. (Recent measures indicate that it dropped to 60% in 2003.)
The flood of reality shows is but one example of the networks' studios lack of creativity, they say. Fin-syn gave the independent producers of The Cosby Show
leverage to insist that the star be an obstetrician rather than a stand-up comic as network chiefs wanted. The result: one of the most successful shows in NBC history.