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Unions, Indie Producers Challenge FCC

The unions for film and television actors and directors are leading a creative-industry coalition calling for the Federal Communications Commission to reserve 25% of primetime television programming for independently produced shows.

The group entitled The Coalition for Program Diversity last week filed its comments with the FCC demanding a variety of creative voices in the broadcast arena, a united effort to weaken the power grip the major networks have over content. The seven-member coalition includes the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the Directors Guild of America, and Sony Pictures Television. They are joined by MediaCom--a holding company managing several marketing, advertising and media corporations--and California independent television producers Carsey-Werner-Mandabach and Marian Rees Associates.

The coalition's filing noted that its members "share a deep concern about the diversity-chilling stranglehold that the four networks--ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox--currently have over the narrow primetime television programming marketplace."

The filing called primetime programming "particularly critical" to 43 million American consumers who don't receive cable or satellite services. As a result, the coalition is demanding that the FCC "take appropriate content-neutral action by adopting a 25% Independent Producer Rule that will insure that the primetime programming aired by the four networks is as diverse as possible." In other words, the coalition is pushing the FCC to mandate that one quarter of networks' primetime schedules go strictly for shows created by producers independent of the nets.

"Diversity of sources--not the economic efficiencies that the networks currently fixate on--must be the commission's primary goal as it analyzes the current primetime television programming marketplace," the coalition's comments insisted.

It added that, over the past decade, "independent sources of diverse programming have been dramatically reduced as network deregulation prompted a tidal wave of vertical and horizontal mergers--resulting in massive media consolidation. A decade ago, 68% of primetime television aired by the four networks was produced by independent producers--while today, only 24% of the networks' primetime schedule is obtained from independent program sources."

The diversity problem "is further exacerbated by the networks' current overwhelming reliance on in-house, lowest-budget-possible programming." Network executives are depending on "the cheapest, most mainline programming" that they can run on various network-owned platforms, including cable. "The result: maximum profits for the networks' parents, not maximum program diversity for consumers," the filing emphasized.

The coalition stated that, due to deregulation in the 1990s, the four owners of the major networks "more than doubled the time and numbers of their primetime programs," lowering independent programming from 47.5 hours per week a decade ago to today's figure of only 17 hours.

'Brazen Negotiating'

The filing also argued that, while networks complain of increased programming costs, "the record confirms that the networks have decreased their programming expenditures as a percentage of revenues from 30.3% to 26.3% over the past eight years." That reduction is "aggravated by the networks' bold and brazen negotiating tactics?fostered by the unregulated environment in which the networks now operate with impunity."

The statement didn't elaborate on the nets' negotiating tactics, so it wasn't clear what the "bold and brazen" term referred to. SAG, AFTRA and the DGA all had relatively calm negotiations over the past couple of years with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers as they agreed to new multi-year pacts for film and TV production. SAG and AFTRA did conduct a bitter six-month strike in 2000, but that was against the advertising industry over a commercials contract that both sides finally agreed to in late October of that year.

That strike, however, didn't seem to affect the unions' willingness to defend the ad industry in its coalition filing. The statement asserted, "The networks' fixation of bottom line profits is restricting the ad industry's ability to maximize its outreach to consumers." The blandness of programming causes a loss of audience, and "when the size of the viewing audience goes down, the cost of advertising?goes up."

Perhaps the "brazen negotiating" phrase related to bargaining with the indie producers. The filing later went on to provide specific support for a 25% independent-producer rule, calling it "First-Amendment friendly" because it would "prevent the four major networks from extracting ownership rights from independent producers. Left unregulated, the networks can and routinely use their dominance to force independent producers to share 'backend' ownership rights, become a network 'partner' or go 'in-house.' " The result, the filing insisted, is the indie producer losing program control and less diversity in programming for the American public.

The coalition added that the 25% rule would allow competition among the "dozens of large and small independent producers" who would vie for the available prime time. Also, the filing said, "solid court precedent" exists that gives the FCC "a judicial green light" to develop a 25% rule.

SAG and AFTRA have long expressed concern about media consolidation and its dangerous limiting of creative voices and information for the American public. A major argument for SAG and AFTRA merging in the mid-'90s was to strengthen performers against the growing media conglomerates. However, the merger failed, and the unions since then have been seeking ways to reach out to other unions and organizations with similar concerns about the growth of entertainment corporations.

SAG and AFTRA are currently working with other performers' unions internationally in forming a global contract to protect actors wherever they work. SAG and the DGA in the past combined to pay for the first major study identifying the negative economic impact of runaway production.

Now the unions have reached out further, coming together with the independent producers in an effort to form a stronger hand to tap Washington for protection of their and the public's interests.

The FCC is currently reviewing media ownership rules, which led to the coalition's filing. The federal review has also led AFTRA and other concerned unions and organizations to urge a formal forum in New York to discuss the rules. That forum occurs Thurs., Jan. 16 at Columbia University's Altschul Auditorium from 9:30 am to 5 pm.

Announcement of the forum led John Connolly, AFTRA's national president, to say last week, "The media ownership rules continue to be the quietest story of the year, with little discussion on the public level about something that will impact the democracy of our airwaves. We are delighted that Columbia has accepted the challenge to further the discussion in this forum, and give all sides the opportunity to be heard."

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