By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"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 Againairs 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 Captivitywas 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 Brownto 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 sosad."