Indie producers ask pols for prime regs

Digital TV debate centers on indie access

In the coming era of digital multichannel broadcasting, the major broadcast webs should be required to set aside a portion of their primetime skeds for independently produced programming, indie TV producers urged Monday at a meeting of the president’s digital TV advisory committee.

At the daylong meeting held on the USC campus, indie producers Gerald Isenberg and Marian Rees told committee members that the concentration of ownership in TV threatens the survival of producers who aren’t aligned with a major studio or broadcast web.

“It’s been the business version of ethnic cleansing,” said Isenberg, former head of Phoenix Entertainment who now teaches at the USC School of Cinema-Television. “Independent voices are systematically being destroyed by the concentration of production and distribution activities into the same hands of the people who own the networks.”

Isenberg listed Disney/ABC, Fox, NBC/General Electric, Warner Bros. and Viacom as members of a “veritable American cartel” that calls virtually all the shots on what gets produced and what gets on the air. Most of the major cable nets are also owned by one of the big six, Isenberg and others noted.

The digital TV advisory committee, co-chaired by CBS Television prexy Les Moonves, was formed by Vice President Al Gore last March to study the scope of broadcasters’ public-interest obligations in the digital age. The committee had been expected to deliver its recommendations to the administration in June, but the deadline has been extended to October.

Rees, a veteran producer of acclaimed TV movies and made-fors, said the federal government needs to take steps to ensure that the airwaves reflect a diversity of viewpoints, particularly in primetime. Although the conversion to digital will vastly increase the number of available TV channels, there’s no assurance that indie producers will have greater access in an industry dominated by fewer and fewer players.

“We fear that the concentration of ownership has diminished the already fragile nature of the independent production,” said Rees. “I urge you to establish some content-neutral regulatory mechanism that would allow the indie community access to that (expanded) world.”

The downbeat tone of the remarks from Rees and other participants in the panel, dubbed “Independent Programming and Access in the Digital Age,” elicited a defensive response from CBS’ Moonves.

“This panel should’ve been properly titled, ‘Let’s Bash the Networks,’ ” Moonves quipped, adding that he felt compelled to depart from his role as committee co-chair to bring a balanced perspective to the meeting.

Moonves and other committee members appeared most taken aback by the comments of panelist Herbert Chao Gunther, executive director of the Public Media Center, a San Francisco-based watchdog org.

Gunther asserted that broadcasters have “by and large failed to meet their public interest obligations” in the past, and he decried the evolution of TV as a mostly commercial medium.

“Most of the social pathologies in our culture can be traced back to a technology used primarily to sell things,” he said. “The dominance of the commercial purpose of TV has to be an underlying cause for the deterioration of democratic values in this country.” To which Moonves later responded: “I’ve never heard myself and other broadcasters compared to (serial killers) Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson.”

More to the point of the meeting, Gunther accused broadcasters active in the news biz of deliberately keeping the public in the dark about the controversy over the industry’s transition to digital. Although the issue is now moot, many lawmakers and watchdog groups argued that broadcasters should have been forced to pay sizable fees for their new channel assignments on the digital spectrum.

“If there was a national referendum (on the digital spectrum issue), it would not pass,” Gunther said. “It’s kind of like giving away our national parks to a handful of (real estate) developers.”

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