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Reviving Independent Programming: Connecting HDTV to the Web

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A number of companies have been working diligently to provide consumers with the means to conveniently connect HDTVs to the Internet. I believe when this technology ultimately enters the mainstream it could very well lead to cultural, economic and political changes that affect how our content is produced, and specifically who will be producing it.

To understand this significance, it's important to stop and look back at a fairly forgotten piece of legislation called the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules or "fin-syn" as it was called at the time. In the late 1960's, the rumblings of what would become the multi-billion dollar TV syndication market began to emerge. To prevent a possible monopoly, the FCC established fin-syn in 1970 to do primarily two things 1) limit the amount of financial interest the networks could have in their own shows and 2) prohibit the networks from syndicating their own content. At its core, the purpose of fin-syn was to promote diversity and competition within the TV business. In hindsight, one could argue it did precisely that. 95% of the independent TV production companies were founded after fin-syn took effect. Because the networks could only own a small portion of their content, they were compelled to buy shows from a thriving community of independent TV producers, including Norman Lear, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner (the Cosby Show), and Stephen Bochco (NYPD Blue). At the time, Dick Askin, president of television at the venerable Samuel Goldwyn Co., stated, "I certainly believe fin-syn created an industry."

But then things changed. Beginning in the late 1980's the major networks began to argue that increased competition and diversity from cable and Fox (not yet considered a major network) removed the need for fin-syn. In the early 1990's, they testified before congress that removal of fin-syn would actually increase competition and that after all, the networks live or die by their ratings and broadcasting only the very best content would be in their financial best interest. Washington agreed and, to the bewilderment of the Hollywood community, the FCC abolished fin-syn. There are a handful of lingering questions from that time. For example, the FCC decision required legal approval from the courts, so why did the federal judge who sanctioned it not permit opposing arguments in favor of maintaining fin-syn? Stephen J. Cannell, one of the industry's most successful independent TV producers, said back then, "I don't believe the judge who made this ruling has any idea how this industry works and how the game is played." Cannell argued that the networks would simply buy their own in-house produced shows, even if they were subpar.

The dismantling of fin-syn almost immediately allowed the major networks to become the major suppliers of their own content and soon afterward they merged with the major studios to become the media conglomerates we know them as today. The six newly formed conglomerates would go on to own roughly 90 percent of the media holdings in the US. By 1996, Video Age International concluded that only one major independent TV supplier of network programs with its own domestic distribution was left, Carsey-Werner. The concept of the "independent TV producer" had with fin-syn become a thing of the past.

And here we are today. A variety of companies including Roku, Boxee, Samsung, Vizio and even the cable provider, Cablevision, have it in mind to connect the Internet to HDTVs. There are several possible consequences when this happens, too many to thoroughly discuss in one article. For me, the most curious one is the potential return of the "independent TV producer." What happens when viewers can easily flip from a network/studio wholly-owned and distributed show to an independently owned and distributed (and presumably smaller-budgeted) show? When this technology takes hold and becomes mainstream, will a new generation of independent producers get their shot? Is there a business there to support them? I believe so, but obviously time will tell. The introduction of a new breed of producers with no financial ties (or perhaps not even a dialogue) with the major media conglomerates could be culturally energizing, even exciting if it resembles past waves of entertainment rebels and outsiders whom suddenly found themselves with a platform. This new wave of technology could inadvertently regenerate an entire sub-business of programming.

However, if the past is any indication of the future, an unfortunate precedent exists of government policy hindering independent businesses in favor of their more powerful brethren. It's with this sense of concern that we watch the current net neutrality debate with Comcast, AT&T and Verizon unfold with all its complicated facets. It is in this context that we welcome the new technology that will connect the Internet to HDTV, and hopefully a renaissance of independent programming.