ABC Photo Archive
Fifty years ago the idea of a small, autonomous American TV producer would have been as farfetched as the notion that Joe McCarthy was soft on communism. Notwithstanding the airing of syndicated fare like Hopalong Cassidy and other low-budget programs produced by a handful of scrappy little independents, the big Hollywood studios (and initially the advertisers) created the vast majority of content aired on American television. NBC, CBS and ABC enjoyed unprecedented market power and could demand whatever terms they wanted from producers. Because serial television is created at great expense, via a deficit-financing model, the Big Three were keen to craft contracts guaranteeing them the bulk of profits from reruns. Once initial production costs are paid off, syndication becomes a license to print money. The networks–in cahoots with big players like Warner Bros. Television and Universal–profited mightily from this system for years.
Things changed in 1970, when the FCC instituted the Financing and Syndication Rules, commonly referred to as fin-syn, to break up the networks’ programming monopoly. The new regulations prevented the networks from owning all of their programs and limited profits from a program to its initial run and one repeat. Largely prohibited from financing their own programming, the networks were forced to cut deals with small independent producers. Under fin-syn, complicated character-driven programs prospered because the networks signed contracts with creative people and then stayed the hell out of their way. (This is more or less how HBO functions today.) Independent creators like Norman Lear (All in the Family) and Grant Tinker (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) brought a new, rich vision to TV. In 1981, Tinker became president of NBC and maintained the hands-off approach he had benefited from as an independent producer. Sure, The A-Team thrived on his watch, but so did Stephen Bochco’s Hill Street Blues. In the mid-1980s, ABC, inspired by Tinker’s example, switched to a similar production model. Among its successes were John Wells’s China Beach and David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks. In effect, fin-syn created what has often been called the second golden age of television–the first having occurred in the earliest days of TV, when live programs were produced in New York City, before the studios moved West and invented formulaic serials like Gunsmoke.
Under pressure from the networks and invigorated by the deregulatory policies of the Reagan era, the FCC began to dismantle fin-syn in the early 1990s. The rules finally died a quiet death in 1995. Today, without regulations, networks are most likely to produce in-house by hiring companies under the same corporate umbrella, as Disney does with ABC and Touchstone Television. In the rare instance when networks do work with a truly independent company, they are likely to strong-arm writer-producers with strategies to pump up ratings. NBC had suggested that producer Judd Apatow and writer Paul Feig insert small moments of triumph into their caustic and poignant high school dramedy Freaks and Geeks (1999- 2000). Apatow and Feig ignored the advice, made exactly the show they wanted and were shown the door–receiving an Emmy nomination shortly thereafter. When his short-lived Undeclared tanked, Apatow retired from TV, turned to feature filmmaking and brought much of the Freaks and Geeks talent along for the ride. The last major independent, Carsey-Warner-Mandabach, creator of The Cosby Show and Roseanne, shuttered in 2005.