Viacom Chairman Says Television's Golden Years Are Still Ahead

EUROPEANS may agonize over what they perceive as American dominance in film and television, but government restrictions are not the answer, says Henry Schleiff, chairman and chief executive of Viacom Broadcasting and Entertainment Groups. Viacom is the largest independent supplier and distributor of television programs in the United States and abroad. ``You cannot synthetically create a product simply by imposing quotas and preventing the competition from coming in,'' he said.

``It's the wrong way to go about it. Competition, whether it's internal or comes from abroad, will eventually improve your own game. Look at what happened when the American government lifted restrictions on the importation of Japanese cars. It hurt for a while, but Detroit eventually improved its own cars and gauged what the public wants from an automobile.''

Some Europeans, led by the French, have argued that the flood of Hollywood movies and TV shows is strangling their own production industries. The answer has been the imposition of quotas that limit the American imports and the time they can take up on local television channels. The quota concept, accepted in varying degrees by the members of the EC, is vocally opposed, as one might expect, by the Americans.

``There is probably a sensible balance between having the benefit of American or other competing cultures in your own domestic market, particularly if it reaches the point where your own home-grown entertainment is shut out,'' Mr. Schleiff said.

``The hard part in life is to find a balance between what is appropriate and what is not. In the case of American TV programs in Europe, I think you are seeing the line drawn at extremes in both cases.''

SCHLEIFF, like other top executives in the US movie and television industries, maintains that the move to limit the amount of time allotted to American shows on European TV comes from governments rather than the viewing public.

In a recent speech, Catherine Tasca, the French minister concerned with communication, said that no one could argue against the right of her government to reserve the majority of television time for local and European production.

THE prevailing French quota limits American shows to 50 percent of the French network schedules. The rest must be French and European programs.

Schleiff says, ``Obviously, we don't have the right to `swamp' television abroad with our shows, but if you really want to know what the people enjoy, take a ride in a Paris taxi and ask the driver for his preferences. He'll tell you he can't get enough of `Perry Mason.'

``There is just no way to legislate taste. Look at our movies. They are doing better than ever abroad, and they are symptomatic of the public reaction to US [television] shows. When it comes to television, government-imposed quotas regulate what the consumer can see, or - better - what he should see. It doesn't make any sense.''

In Schleiff's view, ``the TV medium still has its golden years ahead of it. At home and abroad, with the vastly increased number of channels, we will see video on demand, which has always been the dream.''

What does he think of the much-discussed coproduction possibilities, combining US and European efforts?

``If one accepts the theory that a camel is a horse created by a committee, then the coproduction concept isn't a very promising one.''

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