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[MEDIA] Guilds Unite to Media Ownership Limits

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  • madchinaman
    Hollywood Guilds Band Together to Defend Media Ownership Limits Lobbying campaign pits writers, producers, directors and actors against TV networks. By Edmund
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 15, 2003
      Hollywood Guilds Band Together to Defend Media Ownership Limits
      Lobbying campaign pits writers, producers, directors and actors
      against TV networks.
      By Edmund Sanders, Times Staff Writer

      WASHINGTON -- An unusual alliance of Hollywood producers and
      creative workers is mobilizing here for a stiff fight against
      company efforts to relax long-standing limits on media ownership.

      The coalition combines directors, writers, actors and producers --
      groups more often known for strife than unity.

      But the new push by frequently divided siblings is grounded in a
      shared fear that any move by the Federal Communications Commission
      to allow further consolidation in the TV business would kill jobs
      and stifle creativity.

      "This is really unprecedented," said Victoria Riskin, president of
      the Writers Guild of America, West. "It's remarkable how this one
      issue seems to have captured the entire community."

      The campaign is being led by guilds and professional organizations
      that usually are overshadowed in Washington by powerful company
      groups such as the film industry's Motion Picture Assn. of America.

      This time around, however, members of the creative coalition are
      aggressively hiring lobbyists, funding economic studies about the
      evils of consolidation and dispatching high-profile representatives,
      including "Law and Order" producer Dick Wolf and "The Enforcer"
      producer Leonard Hill, to Capitol Hill and the FCC.

      The campaign pits the guilds squarely against their members' primary
      employers, entertainment and media conglomerates such as Viacom Inc.
      and News Corp., which are pushing to kill government rules that
      restrict them from buying additional TV stations or mixing ownership
      of stations and newspapers in a single market, among other things.

      (Tribune Co., parent of The Times and an owner of TV stations, is
      among the companies lobbying to lift the rules.)

      "In an economic age where four of the six networks are losing money,
      we have to figure out different ways to get programming on
      television," said Leslie Moonves, president of Viacom's CBS unit.
      Moonves said one way to shore up faltering networks is through
      increased ownership of TV outlets.

      "But in no way does that sacrifice quality on television," the
      executive insisted.

      Among the entertainment unions that have stepped up activities in
      Washington are the Writers Guild of America, East and West; the
      Caucus for Television Producers, Writers and Directors; the American
      Federation of Television and Radio Artists; the Producers Guild of
      America; the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild.

      Unlike the major networks and studios, only one guild -- the DGA --
      has a permanent, full-time lobbying presence in Washington. And the
      unions have been criticized at times for bickering among themselves
      rather than working together on issues.

      "They have a sketchy track record in Washington," one Capitol Hill
      staffer said.

      The last time the guilds came together so strongly on the policy
      front was in the late 1980s, when they worked with major studios to
      try to keep big TV networks from reversing an FCC restriction on
      networks owning their programs. The guilds and studios lost that
      fight when the courts tossed out a modified rule known as the
      financial interest and syndication rule.

      The current battle is even more daunting, Riskin says, because
      studios and networks now are often owned by the same parent, leaving
      the guilds to fight on their own.

      In a sign of cooperation, more than a dozen guilds and advocacy
      groups now participate in weekly conference calls to map out
      strategy on the media ownership issue.

      Several groups, including AFTRA; Writers Guild of America, East; and
      the AFL-CIO Department of Professional Employees, recently pooled
      their resources to hire economist Dean Baker of the Center for
      Economic and Policy Research to analyze the dangers of consolidation
      for the FCC, which is reviewing all media ownership rules.

      In an effort to raise public awareness, the guilds also persuaded
      USC and the Columbia University School of Law to host public forums
      on the issue.

      The first forum, featuring FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell and other
      commissioners, will take place Thursday in New York. USC's
      conference is slated for Feb. 18.

      The activism stems from a rising belief that concentration of
      ownership is reducing both creative freedom and business
      opportunities in television.

      Before the financial interest rules changed, for instance,
      independent producers generally licensed their shows for a set
      period to TV networks, then sold them later to local television
      stations and abroad, often reaping a huge financial windfall. Now,
      networks capture such gains by owning the programs themselves.

      In 1992, 17% of new TV shows were produced and owned by the top four
      networks, according to the Writers Guild; last year that number
      jumped to 77%. NBC owned a stake in 100% of its new programs in 2002.

      The result, critics say, is that six entertainment conglomerates are
      determining what shows get made and who gets hired, usually favoring
      in-house projects and their own talent, even though they may not
      yield the highest-quality TV show.

      Meanwhile, independent operators such as Carsey-Werner-Mandabach,
      whose principals created "The Cosby Show," "Roseanne," "That '70s
      Show" and other hits, are a dying breed, observers say.

      "I wouldn't want to be starting out now," said Gary David Goldberg,
      creator of such hits as "Family Ties" and "Spin City." "Unless
      something changes for independent producers and writers, it's a non-

      When he pitched "Spin City" to ABC in 1996, Goldberg and star
      Michael J. Fox were able to control ownership, demand a hefty
      licensing fee and retain creative freedom.

      Today, he said, networks wouldn't even discuss a deal unless they
      could own and control the show themselves.

      "I may have gotten the last great ride," said Goldberg, who recently
      decided to leave television. He stressed that his departure was
      unrelated to the changing environment but said he was worried about
      the future.

      "I used to believe very firmly that only the best shows got on
      television," Goldberg said. "I don't think that's the case anymore."

      Moonves sharply disputed that view. Networks, he said, today own a
      greater stake in new TV shows because they are the ones putting up
      the money to launch them.

      Moonves said many producers and writers complaining about declining
      quality simply are frustrated that they can no longer get the same
      financial deals they could when networks were restricted from taking
      an ownership stake in programs.

      "They want us to pay 100% of the costs and have none of the
      ownership," Moonves said. "I'd love that deal too."

      Moonves said the networks have no incentive to put on low-quality
      shows simply because they own them.

      "If we own 100% of a bad show, we get hit twice," he said. "We'll
      put on the best programs, no matter where they come from."

      Nevertheless, a top priority for the guilds is to persuade the FCC
      to impose new restrictions on television networks, requiring
      networks to buy a minimum amount of their programming, say 25% to
      50%, from outside sources.

      Meanwhile, in an effort to create a more unified presence in
      Washington, a coalition of writers, producers and actors has formed
      the Center for the Creative Community, a nonprofit advocacy group
      whose board includes actress Sissy Spacek, "Dog Day Afternoon"
      writer Frank Pierson and "Murphy Brown" creator Diane English. The
      group was launched in October by screenwriter and attorney Jonathan

      "In Washington, Hollywood is perceived as Jack Valenti [the studios'
      longtime lobbyist]," Rintels said. "We may share some of the same
      issues, but the creative community needs its own permanent
      organization here."

      The Caucus for Television Producers, Writers and Directors is
      focusing its efforts on Capitol Hill, generating interest among
      lawmakers and pushing for congressional hearings on the issues. John
      McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), leaders of the
      Senate Commerce Committee, both have expressed interest in exploring
      media consolidation issues, though no hearings have been set.

      "We're hoping to put pressure on the FCC through Congress," said
      Margaret Cone, a lobbyist hired by the caucus.

      Last summer, Cone led producer Len Hill -- a former ABC executive --
      and others through a series of meetings with FCC commissioners and
      Capitol Hill staffers, urging them to move slowly on the issue and
      consider the effect on Hollywood producers and writers.

      "These are successful people," Cone said. "They have an appeal to
      lawmakers and an important story to tell."

      Finding producers and writers willing to publicly oppose the major
      networks has been difficult, guild representatives say. Most are
      struggling small-business people, fearful about retribution from the
      major companies.

      Rintels was asked to delay announcing the addition of two board
      directors to his organization until the producers could finalize
      their pending deals with the networks.

      "People fear doors will close," Riskin said.

      A spokesman for News Corp., owner of the Fox Network, said such
      fears are unfounded.

      "In an industry like this, lots of people disagree with us," said
      spokesman Andrew Butcher. "But we all still have to work together."
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