Hollywood Guilds Band Together to Defend Media Ownership Limits

Times Staff Writer

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-business."

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 Rintels.

"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."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
78°