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FCC: Much ado about nothing?

Earlier reg repeal put damper on indie producers. . .

For many industry players and public interest groups, last week’s FCC rulings felt like someone sprinkled salt over a nagging wound.

Most were disappointed, but few were stunned by the latest dereg decree which boosted the nationwide station ownership cap, scrapped station-newspaper cross-ownership bans and allowed for more market duopolies.

The two granddaddies of dereg — 1995’s repeal of the financial interest and syndication rules and the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act — had already helped the big get bigger and sent the rest into permanent retirement.

This latest ruling was just icing on the conglomerate cake.

“It was certainly not surprising,” says USA TV Production Group prexy David Kissinger. “It’s just a continuation of the process of consolidating and constricting the independent voices in this business.”

It also served as a final wake-up call to the few who held out hope there might be room for indie producers and mom-and-pop broadcasters in today’s environment.

Turns out there’s not.

Creative types, in particular, still sigh over the repeal of fin/syn, which forever changed the way they do business with the nets. A coalition led by attorney Ken Ziffren has pushed to introduce new rules, but to no avail.

Introduced in 1970 and put into practice by 1973, the fin/syn rules were enacted to keep the nets from crowding out indie voices and to create competition in the syndication world.

The net battled the rules from the start, and by 1993 finally got most of their wishes.

Ten years after the nets were given the greenlight to once again distribute their own programming, two major studios started their own networks (Warner Bros.’ WB and Paramount’s UPN, now a part of CBS), Fox was able to graduate to major network status, and ABC and CBS became divisions of giant entertainment behemoths.

Even the one non-aligned network, NBC, started producing much of its primetime sked through its inhouse studio.

Meanwhile, indie companies that produced or distribbed many of the hit shows of the 1970s and 1980s have gone the way of the western: MTM, Stephen J. Cannell, Lorimar, New World, Reeves, Rysher, Orion, ITC, Republic, Polygram and others are now nothing more but vanity plates at the end of repeats on Nick at Nite and TV Land.

Some were victims of consolidation. Others saw the writing on the wall. Once the nets started demanding co-production credit and perpetual license terms, the financial upside was no longer there for many nonaligned producers.

Big-bucks “ER,” “Law & Order” and “The West Wing”-style renegotiations may soon be a thing of the past, giving studios less incentive to produce for anyone but their own network.

Tom Fontana, who knows a thing or two about indies (having produced “St. Elsewhere” for MTM, “Homicide” for Reeves and “Oz” for Rysher), laments the loss of little guys.

“They are all out of business, swallowed up by conglomerates, in part, as a result of the elimination of the fin/syn rules,” Fontana said last month in testimony in front of the Senate Committee on Media Cross Ownership and Deregulation.

“Big is not necessarily bad,” he said. “But sometimes by deregulating a big business, you can choke the life of a small one. And with that, you lose energy, imagination and entrepreneurial spirit.”

While it’s clear that the rule changes didn’t lead to an onslaught of better programming — anybody stumble across a hit comedy lately? — the jury’s still out on whether deregulation made sound business sense. To boot:

  • In the wake of the fin/syn repeal, the webs stacked their skeds with inhouse productions and co-productions.

    But most shows fail — and footing the bill for all of your own bombs doesn’t make good business sense. Some of the nets are slowly realizing this.

  • Acquiring ABC may have been a good move for Disney, which nabbed moneymaker ESPN in the process. But synergies have not helped push the Alphabet web out of last place.

  • Disney’s Touchstone TV dropped out of producing “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” after it decided there wasn’t much international value for the show.

    Since the show aired on CBS, rather than its own ABC, Disney didn’t want to foot the deficit. “CSI” is now a megahit and would have reaped millions for the Mouse.

  • The FCC’s earlier greenlight for major-market duopolies gave Fox the chance to buy the Chris-Craft stations and Viacom the ability to keep its Paramount and CBS stations (and even to buy Los Angeles’ KCAL).

But it also damaged the syndication biz — particularly for off-net series. With just two major-market buyers — Tribune and Fox — there’s less competition for such product. And if neither station group is interested in a show, producers won’t reap much syndication gold.

Kissinger marvels that he now lives in an age where Universal represents the small fries.

“Speaking as someone who works in the creative trenches, it scares me that the buffer no longer exists between the networks and producers,” Kissinger says. “The proper role for the government in protecting that buffer, one can debate. But what will be lost in this medium is indisputable.”

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