Hollywood's view of Washington is myopic at best. Its inability to understand the capital and its politics shows up in a lot of movies and TV. This is sometimes comical, sometimes sad, but rarely a subject of moment for Washington.
Alas, Washington often misunderstands Hollywood as well. But while Hollywood can only occasionally make viewers laugh or cry, Washington can make laws that even those in Hollywood must obey. Washington's misunderstanding of Hollywood can cause a tidal wave of change along Sunset Boulevard.
Just this kind of tidal wave is now gathering in the East and heading for Hollywood. It is a cataclysm so severe in its effect on Hollywood that it will change significantly the way national television looks, and not for the better.
Basically, the proposed change would allow the three national television networks to make as many of their own prime-time programs as they care to within their own organizations instead of having them made by independent program suppliers. At present, under Federal Communications Commission rules going back 12 years, the networks are severely limited as to how many of their prime-time programs they can make "in house." The change, part of the general movement toward deregulation in Washington, has been proposed by the highly energetic staff of FCC Chairman Mark Fowler.
In theory, deregulation is, of course, a good thing. It leads to free markets, which are healthy, rosy-cheeked, vigorous markets -- at least in theory. In trucking or banking or natural gas, the theory may work perfectly well in practice. But in network television, deregulation that would allow the networks to produce an unlimited amount of their prime-time programming would produce far less healthy prime-time television, at least from the viewers' standpoint. Deregulation in this instance means more monopoly power, not less.
Here's why: the original FCC rules went on to limit network TV production because the FCC found that the networks tended to dominate the entire field of television production. After all, the networks in effect controlled not only the biggest oil fields, but also the pipelines. That made it very hard for small suppliers of programs to get any shows into the pipeline, which is to say, on TV.
Since the restrictions went on, a whole range of new suppliers have been able to get their visual wares on TV. The large suppliers have become more prosperous, and some of the small suppliers have become large. The TV production community, once a pale kept woman of the networks, is now a robustyone and everything is invol industry. That means it can occasionally bombard the networks with enough good shows so that the networks eventually let one on the air. The healthy TV production community can even afford to finance the occasional off-network gamble, such as "Mary Hartman," with the proceeds of its successful network efforts.
None of this is to say that television is a great artistic success. It definitely is not. But even the most skeptical critic would find it hard to disagree that the prime time of fall 1982 is far more varied, interesting and well- crafted than the prime time of 1969. The improvement comes, I have deduced after long years spent covering TV, from having TV shows thought up in three dozen independent companies instead of in three gigantic office buildings, one for each network.
It is an axiom of social psychology that large bureaucracies tend to shy away from anything new or different. It is just as axiomatic that small entrepreneurs tend to have fewer such inhibitions. The working out of those axioms has given us "All in the Family," "Cheers," "Hill Street Blues," "Taxi" and a host of others that would probably never have appeared on the network drawing boards.
If the FCC staff proposal for "deregulating" TV's prime-time production goes forward, TV viewers will be back where they were in 1969. The networks will have the power to make all their programs themselves. Even if they do not make all the programs themselves, the fact that they can do so will chill the independent producers. The networks' standard of homogeneity, already enforced to within a few millimeters per show, will become the unvarying rule once a producer knows he can be replaced by a network bureaucrat at any moment.
In a word, the proposed "deregulation" is really regulation back to giving the three networks absolute control over every laugh line and car chase on prime time, in both conception and execution. The three networks, themselves spawned and protected by government licenses, themselves government-protected monopolies for all practical purposes, will be "deregulated" into greater program control than ever before.
The FCC staff has said that even if the networks do control all of their own programming and make it "in house," that is unimportant. The reason is that the "new technologies" of cable, DBS, over-the-air pay, and others will soon make the networks only one small fish in a big ocean of electronic media. But that is surely visionary if not downright silly. At present, the networks still never have less than 80 percent of prime-time viewers. The new technologies never account for more than 10 percent of national prime-time viewership.
Some day, the "new technologies" may diminish the importance of network TV. But that time is far in the future. Moreover, for most intents and purposes, the three big networks will control much of the "new technologies." The FCC's current membership has allowed the networks to get into cable in a major way, both in distribution and production, and other forays by the networks into new media are proliferating. The ongoing "deregulation" may well mean that the networks will not only control the prime-time programming fish, but most of the other fish as well.
Again, in theory, deregulation of markets is a fine idea. But in the case of television, it seems likely to be a minefield. If the networks are again allowed to dominate prime- time program production, the theory may prosper and champagne glasses may be raised at the University of Chicago. But for the viewers who see a patch of daylight in better programming, deregulation of TV may be foul weather altogether.