500 channels and one thing on

Possible creative fallout from mergers in TV industry may be coming

As one media company gobbles up the next, creating a few powerful titans whose reach extends around the world, critics have warned of a dearth of diversity and the potential for a creative drought.

Norman Lear, creator of "All in the Family," jokingly calls the process "gobble-ization," but he thinks a media world mainly controlled by four companies is anything but funny.

The public, though, appears to be largely unconcerned, despite the efforts by a broad coalition that in the past year has been working to raise public awareness and bring more accountability to the new megamedia universe. Rather, they've delighted as TV choices grew from the three networks to dozens of cable channels, unfazed by the fact that the plethora of new channels is owned by fewer and larger corporations.

But it's the networks themselves that may provide the spark that finally causes America's television viewers sit up on the couch and take notice. How? By messing with top-rated shows in an effort to make a bigger buck.

Last week, ABC reportedly decided to temporarily shelve the independently produced hit "NYPD Blue" and give its Tuesday 10 p.m. slot to "Once and Again." The new, still-struggling romantic comedy is owned by Touchstone Television, which is owned by Disney, which owns ABC.

Such ownership links were once forbidden. But in the new "vertically integrated" world, networks and their parent companies are now allowed to own the shows they broadcast. That gives them a greater incentive to air the shows they own outright, so they can pocket all the profits- as opposed to sharing them with independent producers.

That's a point the indignant "NYPD Blue" executive producer Steven Bochco has tried to drive home. "To yank us for a show you own and then insult my intelligence by saying that's not a factor - come on," Mr. Bochco told the trade paper Daily Variety. The creator of "Hill Street Blues" has asked ABC to cancel his show so he can sell it elsewhere.

ABC is declining any official comment. But an insider says no decision has been made on what will happen to either show - at least, as of this writing. "Obviously, it is everyone's intent to nurture shows that they own because it's a win-win. But that being said, at this point vertical integration has very little to do with what happens to 'NYPD Blue,' " says the source.

Maximizing viewers - or profits?

The real problem, he says, is that the new CBS show "Judging Amy" is doing very well in the Tuesday 10 p.m. slot, particularly with women and the sought-after 18 to 49 demographic.

ABC reportedly wants a show that can compete better for women viewers than does the gritty police drama. But many media critics aren't buying that.

"I'm sure Disney's people have a line about ratings, but it makes perfect sense to me that they're nurturing their own show," says Robert McChesney, author of "Rich Media, Poor Democracy." "If I was a Disney shareholder, that's exactly what I'd want them to do."

Over the past few months, a series of lawsuits have been brought by independent creatives who fear that corporate self-dealing is taking a chunk out of their own profits. In August, "X-Files" star David Duchovny sued Fox, charging they deprived him of syndication revenues by putting "X-Files" reruns on Fox's own F/X Channel, instead of offering them to the highest bidder. Bochco filed a similar suit against Fox last month. The producers of "Home Improvement" charged Disney negotiated a "sweetheart deal" with ABC when it renewed the show. That case was settled out of court.

Media critics like Mr. McChesney believe that such suits, along with the still-intense competition between the networks, should keep corporate self-dealing to a minimum, at least for now. But he and others are worried about a civic and commercial toll exacted by the media conglomerates, which are under increasing pressure to stay profitable.

Critics say the impact on news organizations is clear. True notions of public service have been bumped out by the bottom line, says Mark Crispin Miller, of the Project on Media Ownership at New York University. But he also contends corporate commercial pressures have driven down the overall quality of entertainment.

"They will do almost anything to make a buck - and this has necessarily meant dispensing with old-fashioned inhibitions about vulgarity and profanity," he says.

Homogenizing cultural landscape

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who is pushing for greater minority ownership and presence on screen, contends it's also having a deleterious effect on the richness of US culture. When he grew up, he could listen to the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville, the Ozark Jubilee coming out Missouri, hear blues from Memphis and gospel from Chicago. "With the concentration of ownership, these diverse voices that make up the diverse American culture have become homogenized and marginalized," he says.

Jackson believes that by keeping federal checks on the size of these media behemoths, cultural diversity - in race and region - can begin to reassert itself.

The media titans cobbling together these huge companies say the changes under way will ultimately create a consumer bonanza in the form of a digital, 500-channel universe with an array of once unfathomable options, where quality and diversity will flourish. They also say they're giving the public exactly what they want. But critics doubt Americans will be satisfied in the long run.

"We'll end up with a pay-per-view, ad-rich media system that may have incredible grace and agility in satisfying our commercial desires as it makes scads of money for a handful of companies," says Jeff Chester of the Center for Media Education. "But will it enrich us as citizens, help us understand how to improve a local school? I have real doubts that it will."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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