12 - The Michigan Daily - Tuesday, September 14, 1999
Mergers won't affect TV programs
The Baltimore Sun
With the rhetoric flying from all directions last
week in the wake of Viacom buying CBS for $38
billion, it was not easy for viewers to understand
what the transaction would mean to their lives.
Analysts called it a threat to our democratic way
of life and the "end of network television as we
knew it," without saying who exactly "we" were
and what it was we "knew."
The Viacom-CBS deal is a major development,
but not a watershed moment in broadcasting histo-
ry. Disney-ABC and Time-Warner were water-
sheds because they took us into the super-con-
glomerate era of network television in which we
now live. Viacom-CBS is the continuation of that
trend, which experts are predicting will culminate
in a Sony-NBC deal.
As University of Maryland media economist
Douglas Gomery, who writes the "Business of
Television" column for American Journalism
Review, put it, "NBC is the only network left with-
out a major studio. Sony-NBC would be my pick
for the next mega-deal. It almost has to happen at
You don't need to be an economist to realize
how such deals can change our culture. All you
have to do is watch the new fall shows that the net-
works are starting to roll out.
You have probably already read that this crop of
series from ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, WB and UPN
is the worst in recent memory. This is a direct
result of relaxed federal regulations that allow the
networks to own the shows they air. It's the first
season in which the networks have produced the
vast majority of new series themselves rather than
buying them from independent producers like, say,
Norman Lear or Steven Bochco.
"American viewers need to know this sorry.
group of shows this fall is the new look of network
television thanks to the blockheads in Washington
who allowed the networks to take control of pro-
duction without the public ever knowing what was
going on," said Stephen J. Cannell, an independent
producer who has created more series and written
more hours of television than anyone in
Hollywood, with the possible exception of Lear
A former staff producer at Universal, where he
wrote for and created such series as "The
Rockford Files," "Baretta" and "The A-Team,"
Cannell was also one of the first writer-producers
to own his own production company and studio.
While he still has Stephen J. Cannell Productions,
which makes television movies, he started writing
novels full-time in the mid-1990s. He says he
made the switch in part because the networks were
starting to wrest control from independents by
building their own production operations and
looking to merge with major studios like Viacom's
With four best-sellers in four years, a fifth book
climbing the charts and more money from syndi-
cation than anyone should probably have, Cannell
is not a bitter man. But he is an angry one -
angry about the Federal Communications
Commission letting Hollywood lobbyists seduce it
into dropping the financial interest-syndication
rules. These regulations, in place for 22 years,
kept the networks from controlling both the pro-
duction and the distribution of TV shows. That
single act of deregulation in 1993 set loose the
mega-merger beasts now on the rampage.
"I'm not mad at the networks. They're business-
es run by businessmen. This is what they do. I ran
a studio in Hollywood; I understand. I'm mad at
the people in Washington, who are supposed to
serve the public interest, but instead just let the
networks take control of the airwaves and wipe out
a system in Hollywood that resulted in some pret-
ty good television for the American viewer,"
The system of which Cannell speaks involved a
constant tension between independent producers
and the networks that bought their products. The
best producers had a vision that aspired toward art,
while the networks favored a more bland and pre-
dictable kind of show that better fit their idea of
television as an assembly-line business.
Take "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." As co-cre-
ator Allan Burns tells it, CBS hated the episode
titled "Support Your Local Mother," which intro-
duced the character of Ida Morgenstern (Nancy
Walker) as mother of Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie
One of the things CBS objected to was the scene
in which Ida first meets Mary. It is one of the fun-
niest moments in one of television's funniest
series. In it, Mary is "distressing" a table with a
chain in an effort to make look like an antique.
Walker's facial reactions tell you she thinks Mary
is crazy even as she says, "Whatever turns you on,
The CBS executives thought it was "an S&M
scene" when they read the script and, despite
Burns' attempts to explain distressed furniture,
cited it as one of the reasons CBS would not pay
for the episode. In defiance, Grant Tinker, who
was then running the fledgling MTM production
company, OK'd the $100,000 cost of filming out
of his own pocket - a move that would have near-
ly bankrupt MTM had CBS not finally caved in
after they were handed the finished product.
Today, that episode would never get made and
the character of Ida Morgenstern would probably
never have gotten on screen.
Cannell offered a similar example from his past.
In 1990, he created a series called "The
Commish," about a paunchy, balding police com-
"I wrote it with the actor Michael Chiklis in
mind as the Commish. It only worked with a guy
who looked like him _ a guy who did not look like
a matinee idol," Cannell said.
"But the first thing the network says is, 'We
really like the idea, but we see someone like Jack
Scalia in the lead.' Well, Scalia has your standard
Hollywood good looks, which is the exact oppo-
site of what made this character work.
"Today, I either give them Scalia or the show
doesn't get made. Make it with Scalia, and it's-
nothing. It's canceled in six weeks. But everything
has to fit a standard model in the network mind."
With the paunchy, balding Chiklis, the series ran
four seasons on ABC. And, while it wasn't "The
Mary Tyler Moore Show," it makes a point about a
"standard model in the network mind" that is high-
ly relevant to this season.
I firmly believe that one of the reasons we have
27 new series from ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox this
fall with no leading character who is black is that
the networks controlled the production process so
thoroughly for the first time.
This is not to say that the networks conspired to
make it happen or even consciously wanted it to
happen - only shows that fit a certain model got
made this year. And, outside of a very few super-
star producers - David E. Kelley, Dick Wolf and
John Wells - you either made the shows the net-
works wanted in the way they wanted or found
yourself without a buyer.
The unprecedented level of network control is
also the reason for so many uninspired spin-off
series this fall; spin-offs are safe and fit the net-
work practice of not taking chances.
As for the larger claims about the Viacom-CBS
merger, no one really knows what it all means. But
I feel in my bones that Time-Warner, Disney-ABC
and Viacom-CBS are not the proper media model
for a democracy.
And it is plain to see that we are headed even
further down that road in coming years. Only gov-
ernment can stand up to companies this large and
powerful. And, sad to say, I don't see any trust-
busters on the political horizon.
Courtesy of Artisan Entertainment
The creators of "Blair Witch Project" credit Pierson with hyping the movie.
ieron gives e
mvies big brecakse
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'Harsh Realm' brings
Los Angeles Times
What would you call a world that
looks just like the one you now inhabit,
only when you step out your front door,
people are shooting at you, trying to rob
you and attempting to et your dog?
Well, close. But producer Chris Carter
insists his is a make-believe world, and
he calls it "Harsh Realm." Either way, it
debuts on the Fox network Oct. 8 and,
along with the WB's alien-inspired
"Roswell" and the vampire-heavy
"Angel,"it helps take the new fall televi-
sion season into another dimension.
Carter's success with such science-
fiction classics as "The X-Files" and
"Millennium" no doubt inspired
Hollywood's current preoccupation with
the paranormal. But he says the innova-
tively haunting "Harsh Realm" is actual-
ly richer in story possibilities than any of
his previous series.
Billed as the ultimate mind game,
"Harsh Realm" explores a virtual reality
world created by the military to test bat-
tle scenarios. But something has gone
terribly wrong with the military's plans
and war hero Lt. Thomas Hobbes
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(played by Scott Bairstow) is ordered
into the top-secret computer-simulation
exercise to take on the "virtual charac-
ters" who live in the realm.
It's- not, however, an unruly world.
Rules, in fact, are key to the story..
"You need rules," says Carter,
"because if it were just lawlessness and
rulelessness every week ... you'd never
be able to know the consequences to any
particular action. On 'The X-Files,' you
know, science provided a foil to the
unexplainable. And it's really no differ-
ent. You have the real world, which pro-
vides the measure of the unreal world to
tell stories allegorically."
Building that kind of foundation in
reality was vital to making "The X-
Files" so popular, says David Nutter, a
former Carter colleague who directed 15
episodes of the show in its first three sea-
"The secret to its success was creating
an atmosphere and an environment that's
real. And characters that the audience can
relate to;'says Nutter, now executive pro-
ducer of the WB's hourlong prime-time
series "Roswell," which debuts Oct. 6.
The aim is to keep the audience
focused on the show's people, not its
premise. So when alien Max Evans
(played by "Dawson's Creek's" Jason
Behr) uses a mysterious power to save
the live of classmate Liz Parker (played
by newcomer Shiri Appleby), he trusts
his secret - and his future - to a girl
hes has been silently infatuated with
since grade school.
"It's a love story, an old-fashioned
love story," Nutter says. "We basically
wanted to tell a story that we wanted to
But while "Roswell's" main charac-
ters hail from another world and "Dark
Realm's" cast inhabits one, the new WB
series "Angel" is set in present-day Los
Angeles - an environment its executive
producers insist is much richer in plot
possibilities than anyone's imagination.
Miramax's Harvey Weinstein has
made himself the most visible face
of independent film, with his extrav-
agant Oscar campaigns for "The
English Patient" and "Shakespeare
in Love"- and his bankrolling Talk
magazine after stealing Tina Brown
away from The New Yorker.
But those in the know consider
John Pierson the real guru of indie
When Spike Lee needed S10,000
to finish his first feature, "She's
Gotta Have It," Pierson wrote him
the check. Michael Moore's film
"Roger & Me" might have been bit-
ingly anti-corporate, but Pierson
sold it to Warner Bros. for $3 mil-
Kevin Smith looked to Pierson as
the "miracle man" who managed to
get "Clerks" distributed when no one
wanted to touch his low-budget,
foul-mouthed film about New Jersey
convenience-store workers. Richard
Linklater's "Slacker" might never
have been shown outside Austin,
Texas, or become shorthand for
describing "Generation X," if not for
Even the buzz over the current
indie-film blockbuster "The Blair
Witch Project" was started by
Pierson in 1997.
Pierson aired two short segments
of "Blair Witch" on "Split Screen,"
the show he hosts on the
Independent Film Channel, and
immediately stirred a "War of the
Worlds"-styled tempest on the IFC
Web site over whether it was a real
"Split Screen" had its premiere in
1997, as an outgrowth of Pierson's
multimedia tour for his book "Spike,
Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided
Tour Across a Decade of American
Since then, there's been no better
place to pick up the indie-film buzz.
.Last week, IFC celebrated its fifth
anniversary with an hour long "Split
Screen" retrospective; Monday, the
fifth season of "Split Screen"
Chatting in the show's SoHo pro-
duction office recently, aptly attired
in a "Crumb" T-shirt, the bespecta-
cled, curly-haired enthusiast - he
got married at New York's Film
Forum after showing friends a Buster
Keaton comedy - said the show is
taking a different approach this year.
If Pierson was once the Charlie
Rose of IFC, inviting directors to
talk about their new projects, now he
hopes to be more like "60 Minutes"
creator Don Hewitt, supervising a
cast of correspondents.
"I hope it's a film-loving show, but
it's almost equally about good stories
and colorful characters doing unex-
pected things. It would be nice to see
the show get a larger audience,
because we're not making it for
somebody who is desperate to get
some inside look at Lili Taylor or
Parker Posey," said Pierson, naming
two indie-film It Girls. "They're
great actresses, but that's not what
new in the town Bruce Willis bought;
then abandoned. Then, of course,
Smith, of "Clerks," will certainly
come on in November to discuss his
controversial new "Dogma."
"I'm really keen on getting the
right balance of stories," Pierson
said. "There are people I'd love4
see on the show. We have Atom
Egoyan ("The Sweet Hereafter")
coming up. But it's going to be less
of 'The John Show.' There are fewer
people left I really want to interview.
Although there are still people that I
never want on the show."
"Oh, I couldn't name any names.
I've already picked on Eric Stoltz far
too much," Pierson says, dismiss=
the ubiquitous actor with a lau .
"And Ed Burns. You'll never see Ed
Burns on 'Split Screen.' 'The
Brothers McMullen' was bad news.
It's so middle of the road. It set off a
wave of low-budget, mains tream
romantic comedies You would not
believe how many people isrk in
that genre now. There may "atore
of them than Gen X films." ,
Pierson hopes to give up-and#
ers the chance to get their short films
on IFC, helping them get the experi-
ence they need to make their feature
debuts stand out in the crowd of
After all, he points out, both
"South Park" and "Sling Blade"
started as shorts.
"His taste commands respect,"
said Christine Vachon, the executive
producer of "Velvet Goldmine" a d
"Happiness." She first worked wU
Pierson 15 years ago on 1985's
"Parting Glances," the first filnR to
tackle the threat of AIDS, andthe
movie that gave Steve Buscemi hjFs
first leading role.
"If John finds something ant
pushes it, he gets it noticed," .,he
The films that got their start'with
sneak previews on "Split Ser
include the documentary "D
Trash" and this fall's hotly antiiat
ed "American Movie." * -
Two animators who got thembe a.
on his show then came to thd a1
tion of Richard Linklater and 4Z
doing the animation for hih $e
film. Then there's the pop-culiseg
tion "Blair Witch," whose &rei -
credit Pierson for sparking tf ry
excitement that led to a S I? i
lion-plus take at the box offier
The movie purports to be magng
three people who never
from an expedition into
Maryland woods to explore the
end of the Blair Witch. Th
supposedly was found a year tg 2
"We ran it as 'found footg.>
got a really good respon~ Z
'Split Screen' Web site e e
with people talking about whdU r
was real. That was our fist
inclination of what might h
said Daniel Myrick, who co-woe
and directed the film.
Pierson hopes "Blair
restores some of the excitemet
indie cinema, which he suggegs
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STUDY & RESEARCH ABROAD
The IE Fulbright programs support study abroad in over 100 countries, providing grants for
research,.study and travel for selected countries, and various other opportunities such as
The competition is open to US students at all graduate levels and to seniors who will have
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Information sessions will be held on Sept. 8 at 3pm, and Sept. 9 at 5pm in room 2609 of the
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located in the new School of Social Work Building). The Fulbright Program Adviser is Kirsten
Willis. Contact her at 763-3297 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Deadline for application: September 24, 1999
,._ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
University of Michigan
Edward Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning