After compiling our guide to the “Big Ten” media conglomerates, we shared it with cultural producers and critics in a range of fields: music, journalism, television, publishing. Following are their comments.
Al Franken is currently working on his fourth book, Oh, The Things I Know! (Dutton), due to be released in May 2002.
I’m going to use this as an opportunity to vent against something that happened about six years ago: the rescinding of something called fin-syn. Fin-syn, financial interest and syndication rules, used to prevent networks from owning more than a certain percentage of the shows they aired. For years the networks argued that they needed to own their shows in order to be profitable. Fin-syn proponents argued that if the networks were allowed to have a stake in their shows, they would abuse their power, strong-arming producers and giving favorable treatment to shows they had a financial interest in.
In 1995 the networks prevailed after years of fierce lobbying before Congress. And immediately the abuse began. At an American Bar Association dinner in 1997 I sat next to FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky and asked him if he was aware that the networks were doing exactly what they testified they wouldn’t do. He asked, “What did they say they wouldn’t do?”
“Oh, they said stuff like, ‘We’d never favor our own shows. That’d be insane. We need to put the best shows on in order to get ratings.'”
“Oh yeah,” said Pitofsky, “now I remember.” Then he surprised me. Turns out Pitofsky had represented NBC during its lobbying effort. He had been one of the people saying those things. Now he wanted to know what was happening.
What was happening was that the networks were extorting studios and independents. Give us a piece of your show, or we won’t air it. Give us a bigger piece and we’ll give you a better time slot. They went very quickly from doing it secretly to doing it right out in the open. After all, if you’re the buyer and seller of programming, it would practically be corporate malpractice not to exploit your position. The studios and independents resisted at first on principle, then caved.
Who cares? If you watch network television, you should. The same people who are scheduling the shows are making the shows, so what you see reflects the tastes of fewer and fewer people. Maybe you’ve noticed.
And, of course, the rescinding of fin-syn actually made this chart possible. Studios not only could buy networks, they essentially had to buy them in self-defense. Disney, Fox Studios and Paramount (Viacom) don’t have to compete with ABC, Fox and CBS. They are ABC, Fox and CBS.