Congressman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the powerful House Telecommunications Subcommittee, told an audience of Hollywood execs that it may be time to revisit the debate over the now-defunct financial interest and syndication rules.

Eliminated by the FCC in 1993, the financial interest and syndication rules prevented networks from owning much of their primetime programming and kept them out of the domestic syndication business entirely. Removal of the rules led to the merger of Disney and ABC, the launching of networks by Time Warner and Paramount and the expansion into production by CBS and NBC.

Speaking at a luncheon sponsored by the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture and its spinoff Wednesday Morning Club last Friday, Tauzin indicated he would like to hold hearings on what the impact of the removal of the fin-syn rules has been before the year is out.

Concentration of power

The House Telecom subcommittee chairman made the statement in response to an attendee expressing concern about the amount of power a few companies hold and how that impacts the production business.

“It may be time to have another discussion,” Tauzin said, adding that the relaxation of the fin-syn rules was intended “to create more opportunity, not less of it.” Tauzin, who was introduced by CBS Entertainment president Leslie Moonves,” was planning on meeting with entertainment execs last weekend to discuss the ratings controversy, as well as the impact of media consolidation.

Tauzin, while favoring deregulation that can increase competition and end monopolies, acknowledged that he is concerned about the impact on “the diversity and availability of programming.”

Practical nightmare

Of course, a return of the complete fin-syn rules would be practically impossible unless the government was also going to try to undo some major mergers. Also, many of the studios that were against relaxing rules have since gone into businesses they were once shut out from. However, one could envision producers looking for new safeguards to protect their interests when doing business with studios and networks.

On the ratings issue, Tauzin stressed that unlike some of his colleagues on the Telecom Subcommittee, he does not want Congress to declare how shows should be rated, and emphasized that the new system needs time to be tested. Last week, Tauzin reiterated his intentions to hold a town hall meeting in Peoria, Ill. in May to meet with families and get their input on the controversial ratings system. Politicians, he said, shouldn’t rate programs. “There needs to be a dialogue among families and the industry,” he said.

As for the debate as to just how involved in the Clinton administration should be in determining what public service concessions broadcasters should make in return for spectrum for digital TV, Tauzin said it is up to Congress, not the administration, to pass bills and make policy.

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