Writers and directors struggling to revive restrictions on broadcast networks' in-house programming last week were warmed by a thin ray of hope when Senate maverick John McCain told them "I'll do what I can" to preserve opportunities for independent producers.
While that wasn't an overwhelming vote of confidence, sympathy from the head of the Senate Commerce Committee was welcome relief after months of cold shoulders from the FCC, where the creative community's petition to impose a watered-down version of restrictions on network in-house production has received scant attention.
No matter that McCain offered little hope of reinstating anything along the lines of the financial-interest and syndication rules, or fin-syn. "It's clearly been declared unconstitutional by the courts," he told reporters after a wide-ranging Commerce Committee hearing on media-ownership issues. "I don't have the answer."
But to those seeking new restrictions on the networks, McCain's support is more significant than his lack of optimism.
Michael Gardner, the Washington attorney leading the fight on behalf of a coalition of writers, said times have changed since the court tossed out the old fin-syn rules limiting the nets' in-house programming in the mid 90s. Since the rules were eliminated, he said, there's now solid evidence that programming diversity has been harmed—data lacking when the court ruled.
The pressures facing non-network producers are just one unfortunate result of the larger media-consolidation trend, warned Sen. Ernest Hollings, the committee's ranking Democrat. "We will see fewer creative outlets for independent TV and content producers," he said. "I fear that a 'shoot-first- ask-question-later' strategy plays right into the hands of the media conglomerates and leaves the American people a day late and a dollar short."
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.) What's being lost, said Thomas Fontana, whose production and writing credits include St. Elsewhere, Homicide
and Oz, is the freedom to say no when network executives pressure creators to unwisely alter their shows.
Fontana recalled that NBC wanted Bill Cosby to play a Las Vegas entertainer on his early-'80s sitcom, The Cosby Show.
When Cosby convinced the network that he would quit, NBC relented to allow him to portray beloved Dr. Huxtable, an obstetrician. The show's success helped turn around the then-faltering NBC.
News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch testified in defense of his plan to gain control of DirecTV and then, addressing fin-syn, said the nets don't have the will or the desire to produce their entire lineup. "If anyone comes to us with a show that can get us an audience," he said, "we'll be the first to buy."
Murdoch said Fox produces 30% of its shows in-house, co-produces another 35% and buys the final 40% from outside producers like Fontana.
Gardner, given his faith that new rules could survive court challenge, views the sympathy of a powerful committee chairman as an important advance. He is pushing a plan that would carve out 25% of the Big Four nets' prime time schedule for outside producers.