What if six male billionaires decided what 300 million people watched on TV, saw in movie theatres, heard on the radio, and read in every major newspaper? What if those six men, including the country's biggest defense contractor, chose which projects got green-lighted and which actors were cast?
Some would call it an Orwellian nightmare, but artists and thousands of other U.S. citizens call it reality. More precisely, it's called media consolidation: the popular practice of international corporations monopolizing media outlets such as TV stations, movie studios, and newspapers. As it stands, six companies own 90 percent of the media holdings in the United States: Viacom, which owns Paramount, CBS, MTV Networks, and DreamWorks; Disney, whose subsidiaries include ABC, Miramax, Pixar, Touchstone, Walt Disney Studios, and Walt Disney Theatrical; Time Warner, parent company of Warner Bros., HBO, half of the CW (co-owned with CBS Corp.), CNN, and AOL; General Electric, which owns NBC Universal; Bertelsmann, whose holdings include Sony and BMG Music Publishing; and News Corp., owner of 20th Century Fox, Fox Broadcasting, MyNetworkTV, FX Networks, and MySpace. The men at the helm of those corporations are, respectively, Sumner Redstone, Robert Iger, Richard Parsons, Jeffrey R. Immelt, Carl Bertelsmann, and Rupert Murdoch.
If last month's Federal Communications Commission public hearings on media consolidation — held in the Los Angeles area at the University of Southern California and El Segundo High School — were any indication, Americans have had enough of distant corporate bodies controlling their access to information and entertainment. The purpose of these public hearings, the first batch of several expected, was for FCC commissioners to hear opinions before revisiting — and potentially revising or canceling entirely — current laws regulating the number of outlets a single company is allowed to own in any one market. When the FCC last relaxed those restrictions (known as cross-ownership rules) in 2003, the industry erupted in media company mergers and buyouts.
Unionized Hollywood Takes Charge
In L.A., all five commissioners listened to anticonsolidation speeches from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Diane Watson (D-Calif.), R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, and hundreds of concerned citizens accusing the Big Six of burying or ignoring news stories and entertainment appealing to minority communities throughout the country.
The most compelling speakers, however, were leaders of the five Hollywood artists' unions, who capitalized on the rare opportunity of having the Republican commissioners — Chairman Kevin Martin, Deborah Taylor Tate, and Robert M. McDowell — on the unions' turf. Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein have expressed empathy with Hollywood and have spoken out against consolidation numerous times.
The union reps' main argument was that consolidation shuts out independent network TV producers, who are often the originators of programming that raises ignored social issues by reflecting the underrepresented lives of women, African Americans, Hispanics, gays, and other minorities. Had innovators such as Norman Lear (All in the Family), Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue), and Marcy Carsey (The Cosby Show) worked in the current environment, in which networks generate more of their own content rather than distribute indie productions, their shows might not have seen the light of day, nor would a host of other groundbreaking series such as Star Trek, Mary Tyler Moore, The Jeffersons, Roseanne, Married With Children, and Seinfeld.
Directors Guild of America 3rd vice president Taylor Hackford presented data from his union showing that 66 percent of network prime-time programming was created by indie producers in the 1992-93 season. By the 1998-99 season, that number fell to 38 percent, and today it stands at 24 percent. Additionally, there were 23 independent suppliers of scripted programming in the '90s; today there are only two suppliers: Warner Bros. and Sony.
Adelstein, in his opening address, also spoke of startling statistics on the demographics of station owners. "Women make up over half of the U.S. population, but yet they own less than 5 percent of all television stations. Racial and ethnic minorities make up over 30 percent of the population, but yet they own less than 3.3 percent of all television stations. African Americans own 1.3 percent; Latino Americans own 1.1 percent; and Asians and American Indians only own 0.44 and 0.37 percent, respectively, of all television stations," he said, citing an FCC analysis.
To ensure indie producers at least some involvement in network TV, the union leaders urged the FCC to require that 25 percent of prime-time network programming be provided by indie producers unaffiliated with the networks or their parent corporations. Currently the FCC caps the percentage of indie productions on network prime time at 35 percent, which the networks have been lobbying the commission since 2003 to remove — along with other restrictions — in order to control 100 percent of the content on air. As a compromise, the unions ask that the cap remain in place but be lowered to 25 percent.
Producer Stephen J. Cannell, a member of the Caucus for Television Producers, Writers and Directors, pointed out that independent producers today are also prohibited from moving a project from one network to another, a tactic often used to prevent a network from significantly changing an indie show. He told the commissioners that when ABC rejected his show The Rockford Files because of its moody antihero, played by James Garner, Cannell took the drama to NBC, where it became a hit. "[ABC] would have forced me to change the content," said Cannell, adding that he also fought for Garner to be cast.
In her testimony, given on the evening she was ousted from her position, Screen Actors Guild 1st V.P. Anne-Marie Johnson said the corporate networks, not independent producers, now control casting. "Casting decisions are now made by the networks, and not just for the marquee stars," she said. "Big media companies now cast almost every actor, because they can. Norman Lear fought to have Carroll O'Connor play his vision of Archie Bunker, Steve Cannell knew James Garner had to be Jim Rockford, and Marcy Carsey knew Bill Cosby's character in The Cosby Show had to be a doctor.... Query whether American viewers would have ever seen an African American doctor on prime-time television if it had not been for the perseverance of this independent producer."
Johnson added that the consolidated networks not only block independent content from reaching the small screen, but also prevent actors from receiving fair pay. "As actors, we find the continued consolidation of media companies has drastically limited our ability to individually bargain our personal services agreements," said Johnson, who identified herself as primarily a television actor. "There is no such thing as getting your quote anymore. Like the oligarchy that they are, the networks decide what the top-of-show rates are, in a parallel practice. Some networks will even tell you they only pay 50 percent of the going rate. Take it or leave it. This salary compression cripples the middle-class actor's ability to make a living."
In defense of relaxing the regulations on consolidation, broadcasters argue that new technology and delivery platforms provide enough competition and diversity in the marketplace. Few of their representatives invited by the FCC attended, but one who did emphasized the reality of how broadcasters stay in business: competition.
"Media competition today is far more intense than at any time in history," said Bruce Owen, a professor at Stanford University and a representative for CBS, Fox, and NBC. "Neither commercial broadcasters nor content suppliers are charitable organizations.... To survive in a competitive market, mass media has to offer content that consumers want — or else they'll go out of business."
American Federation of Television and Radio Artists national president John Connolly, who has made anticonsolidation his personal cause over the past decade, told Back Stage days before the hearing, "They spend billions of dollars to buy up television stations, cable networks, and other delivery services, [and then] they have a huge debt to service. When you have a huge debt to service, you tend to want to make safe choices because you absolutely need to service that debt. It really limits the diversity and variety of imagery of storytelling and voices in dramatic and comedy television."
As an example, he pointed to the creation of the CW, the first new broadcast network ever created by combining the assets of two existing networks (the WB and UPN), which were owned by different parent conglomerates (Time Warner and Viacom). Because CW programmers had to "have a sure thing," according to Connolly, the majority of the all-white family shows on the WB were renewed, but only two of UPN's staple African- American comedies continued on the new network.
Many actors say media consolidation poses an even darker problem for performers: bans on employment opportunities. Industry sources say that if an actor appears in a guest role on a CBS series, he or she is barred from appearing on any other CBS show that year. Similarly, if an actor clashes with an executive at one network, the actor may be banned from working with that parent company's other outlets. Connolly declined to address that issue on record but added, "The fears that my members expressed to you are real."