The trade union for TV writers is calling on the federal government to reverse pro-consolidation policies and examine the impact of deregulation by conducting hearings in Hollywood.
The Writers Guild of America charges that media consolidation, along with the increasing integration between TV networks and program producers, is sapping the industry's diversity and will ultimately harm creativity.
"Consolidation in the network business is way over the top," said Charles Slocum, strategic planning director for the Writers Guild of America. "That directly affects writers because there are fewer doors to knock on. The result is, independence doesn't exist now."
Consolidation has been steadily increasing in the 25 years since the FCC first began lifting limits on broadcast-station ownership. But in the guild's view, things started getting really bad in 1993, when the government eliminated the financial interest and syndication rules barring networks from producing and owning entertainment programs.
"The FCC has given a tiny group of like-minded people who share similar financial goals absolute control over what Americans see on television," the WGA said last week in comments urging the agency to retain the 30% cap on one company's pay-TV subscriber share.
The WGA used the opportunity to weigh in on other consolidation-related issues by calling on the regulators to bar dual ownership of TV networks (broadcast and cable), revive restrictions on network program production, limit the hours a single supplier can produce for a network, and reject EchoStar's bid to buy DirecTV.
Consolidation is likely to be the most controversial media issue during the tenure of FCC Chairman Michael Powell. Federal judges are weighing a number of media-ownership limitations, and consolidation has soured relations between the broadcast networks and their affiliates. Public and civil-rights advocates charge the FCC with reneging on its duty to ensure media diversity by allowing an unprecedented wave of mergers since enactment of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
The guild was asked to speak out by Jeffrey Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, an advocacy group that has harshly criticized the FCC deregulatory moves. The guild last weighed in on consolidation in 1990 when it opposed elimination of "fin-syn."
"What we feared would happen did happen," Slocum said. "Eighty percent of writers' employment comes from nine companies."
Today, with so many broadcast networks owning cable nets too, writers have been forced to fight to retain residuals for cross-network "repurposed" programming. The companies "wanted to do this without paying writers," Slocum said.
Still, he concedes that writers have suffered little financial downside from consolidation and, in fact, the number of writers in Hollywood is "at an all-time high" with roughly 2,200 people making a living penning for the entertainment business.
The guild's real issue is creativity, he says. "There are many, many repetitive channels these days. It would be better if there were more points of view and different channels."