FCC ruling won't affect much on TV


April 10, 1991|By Michael Hill

The decision by the Federal Communications Commission yesterday on the long-standing argument between the networks and Hollywood studios over who should be allowed to own how much of TV's programming was a beast designed by committee.

Trying to make everybody happy, the FCC made everybody mad, giving birth to a cumbersome, complicated animal that probably couldn't walk, much less fly. But, its bottom line is that, for better or worse, it's probably not going to have any effect on the television you see.

That was assured when the commission built in a new loophole that allows the Fox network, the most hybrid of the many hybridized flora and fauna that sprout in Hollywood, to continue to operate in its current form.

At issue were the so-called Financial Interest and Syndication Rules. These go back a few decades and were put into effect to stem the power of the then-dominate networks. Basically they said that since the networks owned the only theaters in television, they couldn't also own all the films shown there.

This effectively kept the networks from telling a producer, "Sure, I'll put your show on the air, but only if you sell it to me." The networks were limited in the amount of prime time programming they could own, to 5 1/2 hours of the 22 hours each week. And they were prohibited from participating in the so-called back end profits, the huge amounts of money that can be made when a successful program is syndicated, or sold to local stations.

But, clearly, times change. The networks are not the only outlet for programming any more. There are all those cable channels. There is first-run syndication, shows that range from "Oprah" to "Superboy" that are sold directly to local stations without running on a network first.

Moreover, the studios that can own and syndicate shows were getting into the cable and first-run syndication business. The networks cried foul, claiming that the studios could get into their business, but they couldn't get into the studios' arena.

Yesterday's decision recognizes that times have changed, but also tries to take into account that the networks are still the 800-pound gorillas of the television industry.

It increases the amount of programming the networks can own, up to 40 percent of their prime time schedule, if they actually produce it themselves and don't just have a financial arrangement. And, most importantly for the networks, they can then syndicate that programming domestically, and they can get into the syndication business for all programming in foreign countries.

The folks with a genuine beef are the small independent producers, in large part because they are probably going to lose their foreign syndication money to the networks. And for the small independents, that money was the difference between red and black on the bottom line. To stay in business, they will essentially have to go to work for either a big studio or one of the networks.

That, of course, just continues the business trend in this country of the big getting bigger. If the FCC had real guts, it would have totally separated the producing entities from the distribution companies, meaning that the networks would have to get out of the production business and the studios would have to get out the cable business.

That would have been the best way to guarantee a free growth of creative ideas in Hollywood. But creativity is not what drives Hollywood, money does. And a decision like that would have angered a lot of rich people who can bend ears in Washington. So, for what it's worth, the FCC has pretty much stuck us with the status quo.

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