Net Loss

The government killed TV, and Hollywood's begging it to revive the corpse

If CBS had its way in 1988, Heather Locklear, not Candice Bergen, would have been Murphy Brown.
If CBS had its way in 1988, Heather Locklear, not Candice Bergen, would have been Murphy Brown.
Maybe this won't seem like such a big deal to you, since you don't watch The Education of Max Bickford--which is on CBS Sunday nights. Or maybe you're one of the 9 million who do, in which case, well, sorry about that. But stay tuned nonetheless, because this small tale will illuminate everything wrong with what you see on television--and what you do not see.

The series, which stars Richard Dreyfus as a college professor suffering a midlife crisis, debuted last fall to respectable ratings, drawing 16.5 million viewers. At the beginning of October, it was a Top 20 show in the Nielsen ratings--a rare hit among the fall-season newcomers. Yet by the end of November, Max Bickford was the 56th-most-watched show on television, sending CBS executives--most of whom are accountants creative only at bookkeeping, not show-running--into a panic. The network wanted to make Max cheerful, a smiling mentor to needy young minds rather than a grumpy old man working out his demons. Writers Nicole Yorkin and Dawn Prestwich, who conceived the series and brought it to the network, refused to make changes. So, CBS did what it couldn't have done a mere decade ago, when networks weren't allowed to control their product. Since the network owns The Education of Max Bickford, it just fired Prestwich and Yorkin and replaced them with a new producer happy to make Max happy. Ratings have rebounded modestly, but the series is a sickly shadow of its former self.

Yorkin and Prestwich refused to be interviewed for this story. But the trade union that represents them--and some 11,500 of their peers--is now using their story as an example of what's wrong with television. They're the poster women for the horrific side effects of deregulation and the merger mania that has let a few people control what millions see. Or don't see.

Last month, the Writers Guild of America sent the Federal Communications Commission a 22-page memo detailing just how the FCC ruined television throughout the 1990s by allowing mega corporations and multinationals to gobble up TV networks and distribution outlets, including cable and satellite companies. "The conglomerates' financial interest has, in our view, been elevated over the public interest, with many of the proud, individual voices that in the past gave America so much great television silenced," reads the document. "We feel we all are the worse for it."

See, the federal government killed television, in case you were wondering. Maybe you didn't hear the fatal barrage of gunshots; maybe you couldn't hear the echo coming all the way from Washington, D.C.; maybe you just had the TV turned up too loud. But the evidence remains plentiful, in the form of paperwork strewn across the Capitol like spent shotgun shells. The homicide took place throughout the 1990s, a giddy decade of deregulation that put the remote control in the hands of but a few powerful corporations that would, over the course of a decade, give us more channels but fewer choices.

Elvis did it once--whipped out a pistol and gunned down his TV set. The government did it, too--more than once. It happened in 1990, when the FCC allowed Rupert Murdoch and his fledgling Fox network to skirt long-standing regulations forbidding networks from owning their own shows. It happened in 1993 and '94, when the FCC allowed all the networks to own the shows they aired and later sold into syndication. It happened throughout the mid-'90s, when the government abolished the limit on the number of stations a company could own and allowed Westinghouse to purchase CBS, as well as allowing Walt Disney Studios to buy ABC. As a result, 12 corporations now control more than 100 of the networks available on cable or satellite. AOL Time Warner owns 19 of those alone, from CNN to Comedy Central to HBO, while Viacom has 18.

The FCC knows it screwed up. On September 13 it quietly launched a proceeding to review cable ownership rules and other regulations governing the way television does its business. A month later, FCC Chairman Michael Powell convened a panel of policy analysts and economists to tell him that with such megamergers, "we get an ounce of variety and we lose a pound of diversity," in the words of one expert called before the roundtable.

Or, as Douglas Gomery, author of the book Who Owns the Media?, put it to the panel: "It's not just that we have a lot of choices. It's who selects those choices for us."

The WGA also wants the FCC to hold similar hearings in Hollywood. In the WGA's comments sent to the FCC, the guild insists that when the FCC allowed giant corporations the right to own their content and carriers, it directly led to a "steep decline in diversity, variety and quality."

For instance, the networks rarely produce top-notch made-for-TV movies or miniseries, such as Roots or Holocaust or The Autobiography of Jane Pittman. In their stead we have dim-witted game series and human-cruelty exhibitions such as The Chair and Temptation Island. They're cheap to make and market to 18- to 34-year-old males. Besides, why should Disney spend millions on an ABC made-for-TV movie when it can just release it directly to the big screen, where potentially it will make millions at the box office and, later, in video rentals?

"Freedom in television belongs to a small group of corporations," the WGA document insists. "Do we really want them deciding what we all get to see on TV?"

The WGA's point is that there are now few options available to writers trying to get their work on television. "It's the shorter list of doors to knock on with your new idea," says Charles Slocum, the WGA's strategic planning director.

Consolidation is an unstoppable trend in the entertainment business; it's the proverbial snowball rolling downhill, and the WGA has the proverbial snowball's chance in hell of stopping it. As the guild points out in its memo, mergers have accelerated in recent years with damaging effects: ABC and Disney, for instance, have merged their production and programming departments, eliminating one more avenue for would-be TV writers to pitch new ideas. The TNT cable network, once home to quality made-for-TV movies, ceded control to parent company Warner Bros., slamming shut yet another door.

Both Disney and News Corp., which controls Fox and its subsidiary networks, run their shows on broadcast and cable stations: 24, for instance, airs on both Fox and fX, while Once and Again airs on ABC and the Disney-owned Lifetime network. The networks call it "repurposing," meaning they can pay a lot for a show and get multiple uses out of it for next to nothing. The WGA calls it unjust, since viewers are being forced to watch the same shows on pay television they could see for free on the parent network. Costs are being cut. So are our viewing choices.

"Repurposing is just reusing the same product and putting it on whatever outlets the corporations have," says Victoria Riskin, president of the WGA's West Coast office. "Now it's cable, but someday it will be Internet. So, you're not getting diversity at all."

Long gone are the good old days when television shows were created by independent producers who could dictate content and resist change. The FCC has forced out people like Grant Tinker (whose MTM created such shows as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and WKRP in Cincinnati), Steven J. Cannell (The Rockford Files, Wiseguy), Norman Lear (All in the Family) and Diane English and Joel Shukovsky (Murphy Brown). They have been "legislated out of business," Cannell says--forced to leave TV when they stopped having creative and financial stakes in their own shows.

It just wasn't worth their time or money to let the networks control syndication rights and dictate content. When working on their short-lived show Living in Captivity for Fox, English and Shukovsky had to give up a lucrative deal with Warner Bros. because Fox wanted to make the show at pennies on the dollar. If English and her husband said no, Living in Captivity was off the Fox schedule.

"From the time that I started in television to now is night and day," English says. "If you've noticed, we don't make television series anymore. It's stopped being fun. You're being dictated to by the networks and the studios. They're the same person now. We're all working for one of two people. We're working for AOL, or we're working for [Viacom chairman and CEO] Sumner Redstone...Then they all wonder why HBO's stealing so much of their audience away. When the networks now own everything and it's all about the bottom line and what they can syndicate and how cheaply they can make a program, the public suffers."

To illustrate the change in the landscape, English offers this cautionary tale. When she and Shukovsky took Murphy Brown to CBS in 1988, the network balked at almost every single actor the creators had hoped to cast, especially Candice Bergen, then considered a 42-year-old has-been relegated to TV movies. The network wanted to cast Heather Locklear in the role of the rehabbed network news anchor; it also wanted to clean up and sober up her hard-drinking, chain-smoking past, rendering her as generic as a test pattern. English and Shukovsky successfully refused all the network's proposed changes: Since CBS did not own Murphy Brown (English and Shukovsky had a deal with Warner Bros., which produced the series) and since the network still wanted the show, they had to capitulate.

Five years later, English and Shukovsky were back at CBS with another series: The Lawyers, starring Alan King, Peter Gallagher and Jamie Gertz. Once again, the network didn't like the casting choices; once again, the couple refused to make changes. Only this time, CBS told English and Shukovsky to take a hike. Since the network didn't own The Lawyers, CBS had no interest in holding onto either the show or English and Shukovsky, with whom CBS had a multiseries deal dating back to 1990. The series never made it past its initial pilot.

"The empowerment these corporations have now has made it very difficult for creators," English says. "You see a lot of very smart people dropping out. And there's so much you're not going to see. The perfect example is The Sopranos, which was developed for Fox and rejected by every network. I will say that there are some wonderful shows on now, and there will always be wonderful shows. But I think that there are more terrible shows than there ever were, and how many more of these horrible reality things do we have to endure just because they're really cheap to make? It's so sad."