Deal, quality go down

What's good for TV businessmen is not necessarily good for TV viewers. Just look at the fall offering.

September 12, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

With the rhetoric flying from all directions last week in the wake of Viacom buying CBS for $38 billion, it was not easy for viewers to understand what the transaction would mean to their lives.

Analysts called it a threat to our democratic way of life and the "end of network television as we knew it," without saying who exactly "we" were and what it was we "knew."

The Viacom-CBS deal is a major development, but not a watershed moment in broadcasting history. Disney-ABC and Time-Warner were watersheds because they took us into the current super-conglomerate era of network TV. Viacom-CBS is the continuation of that trend, which experts are predicting will culminate in a Sony-NBC deal.

As University of Maryland media economist Douglas Gomery, who writes the "Business of Television" column for American Journalism Review, put it, "NBC is the only network left without a major studio. Sony-NBC would be my pick for the next mega-deal."

NBC is about to take over 32 percent of the Pax Network for $400 million, but the goal there is to gain some of the 72 TV stations Paxson Communications owns to increase its reach in terms of distribution. Even if NBC takes over 100 percent of the network, it will still need a major production studio to make the shows.

But you don't need to be an economist to realize how such deals can change our culture. All you have to do is watch the new fall shows that the networks are starting to roll out.

You have probably already read here or elsewhere that this crop of series from ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, WB and UPN are the worst in recent memory. This is a direct result of relaxed federal regulations that allow the networks to own the shows they air. It's the first season in which the networks have produced the vast majority of new series themselves rather than buying them from independent producers like, say, Norman Lear or Steven Bochco.

A blast from Cannell

"American viewers need to know this sorry group of shows this fall is the new look of network television thanks to the blockheads in Washington who allowed the networks to take control of production without the public ever knowing what was going on," said Stephen J. Cannell, an independent producer who has created more series and written more hours of television than anyone in Hollywood, with the possible exception of Lear and Bochco.

A former staff producer at Universal where he wrote for and created such series as "The Rockford Files," "Baretta" and "The A-Team," Cannell was also one of the first writer-producers to own his own production company and studio. While he still has Stephen J. Cannell Productions, which makes television movies, he started writing novels full time in the mid-1990s. He says he made the switch in part because the networks were starting to wrest control from independents like him by building their own production operations.

With four best-sellers in four years, a fifth book climbing the charts and more money from syndication than anyone should probably have, Cannell is not a bitter man. But he is an angry one -- angry about the Federal Communications Commissioners letting Hollywood lobbyists seduce them into dropping the Financial Interest-Syndication Rules. These regulations, in place for 22 years, kept the networks from controlling both the production and the distribution of TV shows. That single act of deregulation in 1993 set loose the mega-merger beasts now on the rampage.

"I'm not mad at the networks. They're businesses run by businessmen. This is what they do. I ran a studio in Hollywood; I understand. I'm mad at the people in Washington, who are supposed to serve the public interest, but instead just let the networks take control of the airwaves and wipe out a system in Hollywood that resulted in some pretty good television for the American viewer," Cannell said.

The system of which Cannell speaks involved a constant tension between independent producers and the networks that bought their products. The best producers had a vision that aspired toward art, while the networks favored a more bland and predictable kind of show that better fit their idea of television as an assembly-line business.

Pick virtually any show from TV history that you think is great, and there are backstage stories about how producers fought the networks to make it great or, at least, better viewing.

Take the legendary "Mary Tyler Moore Show." As co-creator Allan Burns tells it, CBS hated the episode titled "Support Your Local Mother," which introduced the character of Ida Morgenstern (Nancy Walker) as mother of Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper).

One of the things CBS objected to was the scene in which Ida first meets Mary. It is one of the funniest moments in the history of one of television's funniest series. In it, Mary is "distressing" a table with a chain in an effort to make look like an antique. Walker's facial reactions tell you she thinks Mary is crazy even as she says, "Whatever turns you on, dear."

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