Charging that the Federal Communications Commission is "hostage to the networks," independent television producer Norman Lear yesterday called on Congress to block the FCC's effort to lift the financial interest and syndication rules.
Last month, the commission tentatively approved a plan that would effectively repeal the 13-year-old rules, which prohibit the three major networks from controlling the syndication rights to rerun network shows or from having a direct financial interest in how the programming is sold.
Speaking at a National Press Club luncheon, Lear, widely regarded as one of Hollywood's most successful independent producers, called the repeal "a dead giveaway to the networks" and contended that it would lead to a further erosion in the quality of commercial television.
"To centralize more power and control in the hands of the network," said Lear, "is to ensure still more of a homogeneous, institutional and undiversified kind of television that so many complain about even now."
The intent of the financial interest and syndication rules when the FCC adopted them in 1970 was to foster a wider number of television program producers by preventing the networks from exploiting their position as the only significant channels of programming distribution. By excluding the networks from the lucrative rerun market and from owning a share of the programming, the commission then reasoned, independent producers stood a better chance of competing for prime-time access for their shows.
However, after a lengthy study, the commission tentatively concluded in August that the rules had not achieved their objective of increasing both the diversity and competition in the programming marketplace and that the networks should have the chance to tap into the $800-million-a-year syndication business. The conclusion was consistent with the commission's announced intent to deregulate most aspects of the broadcast industry.
Lear and other members of the independent producers community have vigorously fought the FCC's move.
In his speech, Lear argued that by dropping the rules, the FCC was allowing the networks to program purely on the basis of their "commercial imperative" and that innovative and "risk-taking" programs would fall in the face of the networks' needs to increase their profits.
Lear further accused the networks of being "disingenuous" and "smarmy" by arguing that the rules should be lifted because of increasing television competition from videocassettes, videodiscs and cable television. "To a large extent," said Lear, "the networks are the new media" and pointed to various network efforts to diversify into cable and satellite distribution of programs.
Moreover, he said, the networks publicly claim that even with new media competition, commercial broadcast television will remain the dominant video medium. This, said Lear, effectively contradicts the networks' argument that they need to be free from regulation in order to better compete in the new media marketplace.
Network representatives have argued that repealing the rules would not necessarily harm the independents, and they oppose efforts to get Congress to pass a "moratorium" on the repeal until Congress passes comprehensive legislation.