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Net Loss

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."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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