Near the end of another article about the problems of the American TV business (well, lots of American businesses have problems these days), the creator of Scrubs, Bill Lawrence, has this to say:
“Scrubs” creator Bill Lawrence said vertical integration is the way to go. Lawrence believes he’s working in “a landscape that is not friendly to television production.” After seven seasons on NBC, his show is moving to ABC this fall. Lawrence is glad he’ll be on “a supportive network that also produces us, which I think is the best model for TV nowadays.”
Those of us who are nostalgic for the days of fin-syn rules, when networks were prohibited from owning their shows outright, can read that quote and realize that them days ain’t coming back: here we have a TV creator who’s glad that his show is moving to a network owned by its parent company (Scrubs is a Disney production, moving to ABC) and saying that this is the best way for TV to operate.
Is he right? Looking at it from the point of view of what’s best for a show’s viability, he probably is. A show that’s produced by one company and aired by another probably is a lot less secure than a “vertically integrated” show. Back in the early ’90s, some producers muttered that the Fox network (the network that would not have existed if Rupert Murdoch hadn’t been able to get the fin-syn rules relaxed) seemed to favour Fox productions over outside productions. Flash forward to now, when every network is owned by a corporation that also owns a bustling production company, and now that attitude is prevalent everywhere. ABC is not going to try to kill shows that aren’t produced by Disney, and NBC isn’t going to spike any non-Universal show, but it certainly can’t help a show on the bubble if it’s done by an outside company and the parent corporation won’t make any money from the syndication of the show. Of course, the networks and production companies still operate as separate entities, sometimes to a surprising extent; there are plenty of anecdotes about production companies demanding exorbitant terms from their parent networks, because each division has to worry about its own profits. But a certain amount of collusion is always inevitable, and Scrubs will probably get more respect from ABC simply because they’re part of the same corporate family.
The down side is that the clash of two different corporate cultures can have a good effect on the shows. Think of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a Fox production that started out with a lot of the trademarks of Fox productions of the time — there was a lot of X-Files in there that first season — meeting the WB and its increasingly teen-oriented culture and marketing. The culture clash produced something unique. Think of the ’70s when Paramount became increasingly cross-pollinated with the ABC network (network execs like Michael Eisner would routinely go back and forth between ABC and Paramount), turning Paramount and ABC into a nearly-unbeatable team for several years. Or more recently, think of Veronica Mars, a Warners property that wound up on UPN, a network with a slightly grittier style than the WB (I said slightly); if it had been on the WB, it would likely have succumbed to the teeny-bopper ‘shipper disease that every WB show had at the time. When it’s always one network in combination with one production company, that decreases the chances that any show will stand out, because there are fewer different combinations of production company/network executive.
By the way, though I think that fin-syn had a generally good effect on the TV business, I would not advocate bringing back the actual rules, because, for one thing, that’s never going to happen — like the “Fairness Doctrine,” once these rules are abolished, they’re almost impossible to bring back — and because in the new fragmented TV world, they’re irrelevant; they’d only hamstring the broadcast networks by comparison with the cable networks that don’t have to follow FCC rules. Finally, fin-syn only made sense when networks were truly separate from the production companies; now that most production companies are connected by corporate ties to a major network, these same rules would make it harder to sell shows (you can’t tell Fox that they can’t, or shouldn’t, sell shows to the Fox network). The fin-syn rules, like much else, only made sense in the old three-network universe. But the principle that the rules were based on, that sometimes things can get ugly if the networks don’t want to air shows they don’t own, is still a valid one, I think.