The debate over who should be allowed to own and syndicate television programming went another round here today, with spokesmen for the three major networks trying to persuade independent TV stations and producers that the field should be opened to all.
A Federal Communications Commission rule adopted in 1970 prohibits the networks from owning or syndicating most of the programs they broadcast. The networks have been fighting to have the rule repealed, contending that they need the revenue from such activities to compete in the changing video environment with cable and pay television.
Today's debate over repeal of the financial interest and syndication rule was staged at the annual convention of the National Association of Television Program Executives, who are independent producers that sell progams to broadcasters, including the networks.
Network representatives encountered repeated claims that, without government regulation, they would monopolize the production of programming and subsequent billion-dollar rerun rights, thereby greatly damaging the independents.
The FCC is expected to vote this summer on the issue, which provoked a barrage of testimony from advocacy groups in congressional hearings last week. According to reports here, at least four FCC commissioners attending the convention--Mini Dawson, Henry Rivera, Anne Jones and James Quello--appeared committed to vote against repeal of the rule, or in favor of the independent stations and producers. The FCC has seven commissioners.
Regulators, network executives, and independent producers here agreed that compromise on the issue was likely. Quello, for example, has proposed a graduated revocation of the rule, which would allow the networks to reap a gradually increasing share of production profits.
In a related development on Capitol Hill, Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and telecommunications subcommittee Chairman Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.) introduced legislation that would provide a five-year moratorium on any changes in the FCC financial interest and syndication rules.
One of the major concerns of independent stations, producers and syndicators at today's seminar was the likelihood that the networks would collude to "warehouse" programming, making it unavailable to non-network sources. But CBS Television Network President Tony Malara rejected those arguments as a "doomsday scenario."
"The independents should welcome the networks as three new suppliers that will make a continued investment in the high-quality programming," Malara said.
However, Mel Blumenthal, executive vice president of MTM Productions Inc., said that the networks would not be willing to take the economic risk of producing shows like his company's Hill Street Blues, which he said is produced at a deficit of $65,000 per episode.
The independents "are a small island in the backwash of total network control," Blumenthal said.