The end of fin-syn as we know it (and we feel fine)

THE BERLIN WALL CAME DOWN. The Soviet Union broke up. It was just a matter of time before fin-syn crumbled.

To hear some within the television industry discuss it, the seemingly inevitable disappearance of the financial interest and syndication rules — which could still take a couple of years to play out — is an event no less momentous than those that have rocked Europe.

The boundaries of the TV world, too, are being re-drawn, making 20-year-old regulations like fin-syn (CBS’ Howard Stringer has likened the shortened moniker to a Chinese soup) more difficult to justify. Add to that the crush of mergers and megamergers, studio acquisitions by overseas interests and, perhaps most significant, technological innovations that threaten to allow everyone to program their own network, and the writing seemed to be on the wall.

The crowning blow may have been Warner Bros. and Paramount announcing they will seek to follow Fox in launching their own networks — another development making the rules look passe, even if the strategy amounts to a defensive posture against the demise of fin-syn, with studios seeking to ensure outlets for their own product.

Assuming the end is near, the real question involves whether the reality will be as grave as proponents of fin-syn insist. The answer, like most polarized issues, is probably somewhere in the middle: the networks may engage in some questionable practices, but the forces opposing network excess are strong enough to prevent the sky from falling.

It’s always been amusing to note that some of the most quotable and outspoken advocates for fin-syn, such as Warner Bros.’ Bob Daly and producer Leonard Hill, are former network executives — people who, one would assume, had an opportunity to look into the teeth of the network bear, up close and personal.

Both sides in the fin-syn debate speak with an almost religious fervor. Pity us, the networks say, left to watch helplessly as foreign conglomerates bought our studio brethren — we shepherds who merely want to use our expanded freedom to compete on behalf of the good ol’ U.S.A. and help independent producers in need.

Bah, say the studios, citing past crimes and misdemeanors. The Big Three will restrict access, exhibit favoritism in ordering and scheduling their shows and greedily extract ownership rights from independents (which, as the cost of entry into the TV biz became more prohibitive, is essentially what we the studios have been busily doing the past few years).

WHAT OFTEN SEEMS LOST in the hysteria over fin-syn is that television, generally discussed as a “hit-driven business,” is almost equally driven by failure.

Networks live with failure; indeed, they count on it. When a TV show fails, the series becomes a loss for the network, because it didn’t deliver ratings, and for the production company that supplied it. As a result, a network producing its own series not only doubles its pleasure with a hit but expands its loss with each failure.

Some independent producers have welcomed the relaxation of fin-syn, seeing the opportunity to ally themselves with the network as an advantage — a means of securing a leg up in scheduling and a source of financing.

What they may be missing, however, is that network ownership can be a double-edged sword — particularly when longevity on a network is no longer a clear indication of viability in syndication, where a show can really recoup its costs.

Twentieth TV made headlines a few years ago by pulling the plug on “Anything but Love” although ABC still wanted the series. Would ABC have been as eager to keep the show running had ABC Prods. been eating the $ 200,000-plus per-episode deficit on a half-hour that clearly lacked the potential to make up that gap on the back end?

As CBS officials have said in defense of their short-order policy, prolonging an obvious failure may be to no one’s benefit, and it’s even more of a detriment if you’re getting bled on both ends of the equation.

The networks have faintly bared their post-fin-syn fangs this season, as ABC added several in-house shows to the schedule at the last minute, CBS gave its best time period to an in-house series (“Dave’s World”) and NBC picked up a marginal NBC Prods. sitcom (“Saved by the Bell”) for six more episodes.

STILL, THE BIG BAD WOLVES have also shown their vulnerability. ABC has officially pulled the plug on just two of its 11 new series, and both of them (“Moon Over Miami” and “The Paula Poundstone Show”) came at least in part by ABC Prods. Over the summer, CBS killed off several shows in which CBS Entertainment Prods. had an interest, and NBC still has a modest in-house presence on its regular lineup.

The playing field is different regarding movies and miniseries, an area neither as risky nor as rewarding as the series game. A producer or network can do nicely by producing reasonably budgeted movies and owning them, providing greater incentive to control product. Because it’s a less lucrative business, however, the incentives for wide-scale favoritism remain relatively small.

There are other laudable-but-nebulous aspects of the fin-syn rules, such as fostering diversity among suppliers — a good policy in theory that’s difficult to legislate. In addition, the network role as buyer already serves as a funnel that tends to homogenize product, since sellers inevitably gear their pitches toward what the webs seem to want at that time.

Taking all that into account, the networks have probably earned the right to prove they can play nice with the other children in this confusingly expanded TV environment. If they don’t, a hue and cry will undoubtedly arise, and the government can step in and start this whole ball rolling all over again.

Fin-syn, the Sequel. Now that would be the biggest sin anyone associated with this long, drawn-out ordeal could possibly commit.

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