Mark S. Fowler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, acts as if he thinks the American viewing public can best be served by absolute and unchallenged network tyranny over what gets shown on television, even on non-network stations.
The commission voted 3 to 1 late last week to do away with the long-running and therapeutic financial interest and syndication rules that for about 13 years have kept the networks from owning, and controlling the subsequent syndication of, most of the programs they put on the air.
Currently, producers generally lose money on the network first runs of their shows, and make their profits later by syndicating them. The so-called "compromise" reached by the FCC would effectively make the networks full partners in the $800-million-a-year syndication business. Essentially the ruling hands the networks a gold mine on a silver platter.
"It is an outrage, an absolute rape," says Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America and one of the chief opponents of rescinding the rules. "This decision represents a smashing, callous disregard for the public interest. It's a 'compromise' that gives everything, totally, to the networks. The networks have no ally in this but Fowler. He's in the hip pocket of the networks, and as a result, he is bound and determined to turn all programming over to them."
Randy Nichols, Fowler's chief of staff, said Friday he did not want to comment on Valenti's charges; Fowler himself was out of town and unavailable. Whether or not he carries the ball for the networks, the television industry has a lot of obedient official friends in Washington. This is the atmosphere in which communications policy for the future of this country is being formulated.
Although the rule does not become hard and fast for 60 days, during which "reply comments" will be received at the FCC, and although there is widespread support in the House for overriding the FCC's ill-timed revisionism and forbidding it to make such a sweeping change at this time, Fowler could still get his way, particularly since there isn't a big head of steam in the Senate on this issue. If the compromise--which amounts to a virtual repeal of the rules--is allowed to stand, the FCC will have ignored the protests and outcries not only of an uncharacteristically unanimous Hollywood production community, but also of labor unions, communications activists, and numerous citizens' groups that have vehemently opposed messing around with rules that were working fine.
"When Fowler leaves the FCC, they can put a little plaque on his chair," says Valenti. "It will say, 'Here sat Mark Fowler, the man who killed competition in the television marketplace.' "
Arthur Price, president of MTM Enterprises, says from Studio City, Calif., that he heard of the FCC ruling on the same day he learned that MTM shows had received 29 nominations in this year's Emmy Awards. "I thought it was kind of ironic," he says. "In my opinion, this is a ruling that will prevent the kind of creative stretching that comes up with a 'Hill Street Blues' or a 'St. Elsewhere' two acclaimed MTM shows because who would be crazy enough to make that kind of investment?
"I'm aghast at the lack of perceptiveness on the part of the FCC commissioners as to what the producers have been saying to them all these weeks," says Price. Mel Blumenthal, another MTM executive, says, "Fowler is not picking up on any of the signals coming out of Congress on this issue. Even the White House reportedly has told him to back off. He seems to be on a mission."
Price is perplexed by NBC Chairman Grant Tinker's adamant support for the Fowler position, since if the rules hadn't been passed in the first place, there might have been no MTM, the company Tinker founded--and no Lorimar or Norman Lear companies either. But then, the networks have put up a doggedly unified front on this one.
The fight is not just between Tyrannosaurus Network--the ravenous old beast who fears that new technologies and the rise of independent stations will curtail its enormous earning power--and all the rich Fraggles out in Hollywood who make the programs the networks put on TV. The public will be cheated if the rules go, because network power will then be all but limitless. Producers will have even less space in which to innovate and experiment, and drastically less economic incentive to do so. Television's near-monolithic mediocrity can only get more entrenched under such a system.
Nichols says that Fowler and staff believe that independent stations will not be hurt by the change in rules. The rules will still prohibit the networks from unduly withholding shows from the syndication market in their own self-interest (shows will have to be made available no more than six months after they leave network prime time) and will prevent the networks from keeping shows on the air beyond their natural lives just because the networks have a financial interest in them. They will be forced to sell them into syndication after a five-year run, Nichols says.
"We think we've protected the public interest very well with these rules," says Nichols.
However, it was purely the interest of the networks that instigated the drive to get the rules repealed.
Asked what he thinks of the compromise, Andrew Jay Schwartzman, executive director of the Media Access Project here, says, "It stinks. It ignores two of the very important elements of the case. First, the impact the repeal would have on the diversity of ownership of information sources in this country. Second, the matter of the creative freedom of the artistic community in Los Angeles, such as it is. The commissioners completely ignored those things."
Although America stands on the threshold of, or in the very middle of, a communications revolution that will have profound impact on nearly every aspect of life in the future, there seldom has been an FCC more heavily populated with slugabeds and muddy thinkers. The commission has been winnowed down in size; apparently, the size of its thinking caps has shrunk as well.
The idea that a safeguard is built into the syndication system, preventing the networks from controlling the way programs are syndicated, is preposterous, Valenti says, because even though "independent companies," not the networks, would be doing the actual syndicating, "there is no way to police antitrust violations" or to prevent the networks from exerting undue pressure on such companies to behave as they want them to. In network television, Valenti says, deals are made "at the urinal, on the golf course or at lunch," well out of reach of would-be rule enforcers.
There the networks could easily enter into syndication deals containing stipulations that protect network interests. For example, says Schwartzman, the network peddling a show into syndication could make it more financially lucrative for the "independent company" involved by attaching the condition that the show not be slotted at 11:30 opposite Johnny Carson, or whatever show the network wanted to protect.
That would be one way for the networks to suppress the audience-drawing powers of hit programs once they find their way to the independent stations. The networks would waste no time in finding others.
Schwartzman says, "Fowler is a narrow-minded ideologue, constitutionally incapable of seeing The Big Picture and blind to the needs and interests of those who do not have the dollars to vote in his marketplace."
Fowler may be just as dangerous as James Watt, but the public hasn't heard of him, partly because the battle over the financial interest and syndication rules is one that has not been touched by network news. Don't look for it on tonight's newscasts, either.
If Watt would sell away public lands to private exploitation, Fowler would give away the airwaves, by law the property of the public, to some of the biggest businesses in the country. Future generations will look back on Fowler's reign at the FCC the way we now look back on the Dark Ages. At the commission, these are.