[MEDIA] Guilds Unite to Media Ownership Limits
- 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
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
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
"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
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
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."