Legendary TV producer Stephen J. Cannell was also a strong voice for indie producers
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Stephen J. Cannell, the legendary television producer who died Thursday at 69, spent his early days toiling for ‘Dragnet’ creator Jack Webb and went on to create some of the most memorable shows ever including ‘The Rockford Files’ and ‘Wise Guy.’
Behind the scenes Cannell was just as big a force. Within the industry, he was a powerful advocate for independent producers who were getting squeezed out of the business by deregulation and consolidation.
In the late 1980s, the broadcast networks begin to aggressively lobby the Federal Communications Commission to repeal the financial interest and syndication rules. Those rules basically prohibited broadcast networks from owning the shows that they aired on prime time. The rules protected independent producers as well as the major studios who feared that if the networks could own their programming it would be harder for others to get their shows on the air.
The networks successfully argued that the media landscape had changed dramatically since when the rules were created. For starters, the Fox network was born and given a waiver from the rules and cable was just starting to emerge as a force, although at that time it was not the hotbed of original programming that it is today.
Cannell was one of the most prominent producers to speak out against the networks. He warned -- accurately, it turned out -- that indie producers would be shut out unless they sold out. When the broadcast financial interest and syndication rules, widely known as fin-syn, were relaxed (and eventually gutted), it cleared the way for Disney to buy ABC, Viacom to acquire Paramount and NBC and Universal to merge and most indie producers went away.
At the time of the ruling that gutted fin-syn, Cannell told the Los Angeles Business Journal, ‘I don’t believe the judge who made this ruling has any idea how this industry works and how the game is played. We are going to see the networks buying from themselves (and not from the independents and studios), and I’m trying to figure out a way to still be able to play my shows on network TV.’
From a creative standpoint, Cannell also argued that without any regulations regarding the ownership of content, it would be tougher for writers and producers to stick to their vision. ‘Conceivably, our creative hands will be tied,’ he warned to the LABJ.
Years later, his views had not changed. As recently as 2006, Cannell said on behalf of the Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors that the demise of fin-syn not only hurt the creative community, but the television business overall. The networks, he again argued, would always lean towards a show they own vs. one they didn’t regardless of quality.
Cannell was pretty much on the money with all his predictions. These days, his best bet to get on TV was in front of the camera as a recurring character on the ABC detective show ‘Castle,’ which is, of course, made in-house.
-- Joe Flint
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