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End of a decade, end of an indie era

Gov't policy has limited role of independent producer

The demise of “That ’70s Show” will mark the end of another era — that of the truly independent primetime television producer.

“The possibility of having an independent production company in the way that Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey had for years is very limited because, in a sense, what they did was fund the studio,” observes Jim Kraus, Carsey-Werner’s president of domestic television.

“They were deficit financing their own pilot production and deficit financing all their series with the hope of recouping that, and more, on the backend,” he continues. “The scale of it may not have been the size of Universal or Warner Bros. but certainly it was a very substantial studio. When I joined the company, five shows were in production.”

The reason Carsey-Werner may be the last of a once-flourishing breed is easily pinpointed, Kraus says: The repeal of the Financial Interest and Syndication rules in 1996 fundamentally changed the business and sounded a death knell for many independent producers.

“Even though the networks claimed that they would keep themselves open to independent production, they really have gone the way of producing their own shows and thereby securing any downstream syndication and cable selling opportunities.

“Today, all networks insist on a piece of the pie; that’s really standard procedure at this point. Let’s say the networks take 50% interest in the distribution of the show, the syndication rights and cable rights — that really limits the upside for somebody like Tom and Marcy, who when they hit a home run really reinvested in the industry.”

Tracy Green, exec VP for Lion Television USA, agrees, noting that government policy has been the primary factor in shaping, and limiting, the current role of the independent producer.

“In Britain the independents are more powerful because, under government rules, broadcasters have to let independent companies hold on to ownership,” she explains. “But that is going in the other direction here. Regulations in the U.S. are making it harder and harder on independent producers.”

Green also points out that the resulting business model since the repeal of Fin-Syn, “is not for the faint of heart. So the question isn’t if there is enough room in the system for independence; it’s going to be: Are there enough people who want to do it?”

This is not to say that independent producers won’t continue to make an impact, stresses former Carsey-Werner partner Caryn Mandabach, who now runs her own production company. But they will not be independent in the same way.

“I can only really speak for comedy, and I think that narrative-structured, writer-centric programming will go on forever. Producers are going to be stronger. I’m bullish on the notion of being a producer because essentially a producer is an alchemist who takes nothing and has a vision for something; sells that something and makes sure that something honors the intended promise and product. The need for somebody to do that job is never going to go away.”

Today’s independent, however, has an asterisk by that title.

“Independence, in my opinion, is defined by the ownership, either all or part, of the distribution, and that seems in peril at the moment,” says Mandabach. “Is somebody really independent if they are a pod at Warner Bros.? No, is my answer, because you are being paid by Warner Bros.”

Mandabach agrees that one of the strengths of the independent is creative agility: the ability to quickly pick up on trends and the willingness to take risks.

“I think a corporate culture is the enemy of craftsmanship,” she says. “How are you going to be a craftsman in a culture that is fundamentally defined by profit — and quarterly profit at that? So if you want to create anything that’s crafted, it seems to me, having had some experience with crafting things, that a noncorporate environment is more conducive for that.

But,” she adds with a laugh, “I suspect my cohorts at the studios would not agree.”

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