Marshall Herskovitz: Decent TV? Not while there's a war on creativity

  • Article by: MARSHALL HERSKOVITZ
  • Updated: November 8, 2007 - 5:46 PM

The networks have all the control. Maybe the Internet offers a way out of this mess.

After 20 years and five series, including "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life," my partner, Ed Zwick, and I have -- for the time being at least -- stopped producing television programs.

It's not personal. I count as friends many of the executives who work at the networks. This is not about how we were treated but rather something much larger: How a confluence of government policy and corporate strategy is poisoning the TV business.

It started in 1995 when the Federal Communications Commission abolished its long-standing "fin-syn" rules (financial interest and syndication), allowing networks for the first time to own the programs they broadcast. Before that, under classic antitrust definitions, the networks had been confined to the role of broadcaster, paying a license fee to production companies for the right to broadcast programs just two times. The production companies owned all subsequent rights. In the mid-1990s there were 40 independent production companies making television shows. If a network didn't like a show, the production company could take it to another.

But not after 1995. The abolition of the old rules set in motion an ineluctable process, one that has negatively affected every creative person I know in television. Today there are no independent production companies making scripted television. They were all forced out of business by the networks' insistence -- following the FCC's fin-syn ruling -- on owning part or all of every program they broadcast.

The most profound change resulting from that ruling is the way networks go about the business of creating programming. Network executives routinely tell producers to change the color of the walls on sets, routinely decide on the proper wardrobe for actors, routinely have "tone" meetings with directors on upcoming pilots and routinely give notes on every page of a script.

The problem is that these executives often have little background or qualification for making creative decisions. They are guided by market research and -- they want to believe -- a learned intuition about what the public wants. This season's new shows have been a good indicator of how successful that strategy is: Even before the current writer's strike, virtually every new show was struggling.

But the changes have gone further. Over the last few years -- during a time when network profits have been increasing -- salaries and profit participation for the writer-producers who create the shows have been slashed. Fees were cut by one-third to one-half, and profit participation in many cases was effectively eliminated. It's a curious (and peculiarly American) fact that many of the great artistic talents in the history of film and TV also have been entrepreneurs: Chaplin, Capra, Serling, Pakula, Lucas, Spielberg -- the list goes on. For reasons that are probably more psychological than anything else, creative and financial independence seem to go hand in hand.

Yet what we have now is a complete absence of either in the world of television. Your TV may receive 200 channels, but virtually every one of them is owned by one of six big companies -- NBC Universal, Disney, Time Warner, Viacom/Paramount, Sony and News Corp. And each channel has a brand identity dictated by those companies to which each program must adhere.

Because the business of television has become an exclusive club, closed to new members, some producers are turning to the Internet to have a voice. Zwick and I have joined that migration. We've created a project called "quarterlife" -- a series and a social network -- that we own and control, and we had to give up our TV deal in order to do it. The series will premiere Sunday on MySpace and then on our site, quarterlife.com, the next night.

We've worked very hard, and spent a great deal of our own money, to make it as good as anything we've ever done on television. And we've gotten calls from every guild and producer we know, all of whom are curious to see if this little experiment can succeed. Because if it does, it will prove that there's a way to independently produce, finance and distribute ambitious content on the Internet. And if we can do it, others can do it.

The problems of network ownership and creative control are not directly at issue in the current strike by the Writers Guild of America. What's at stake is how writers will be compensated, given the control everyone assumes the big companies will exert over new methods of delivery. Deep resentment in the entire creative community over the absolute power wielded by these companies is the fuel that feeds the strike. The public is also fed up, tuning out in droves and sending millions of e-mails whenever the FCC holds hearings on the subject.

And yet the large corporations move forward, seemingly unaware that they are strangling the creative engine that might save them.

Marshall Herskovitz is a TV and movie producer whose credits include "Blood Diamond,"thirtysomething" and the upcoming "quarterlife." He is president of the Producers Guild of America. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.

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