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TV Network Production Hurts Indies

TV Network Production Hurts Indies Lilly, Rich: Rejected by networks, their “State of Grace” went to the Family Channel. By CARLOS MARTINEZ Staff Reporter In what he considers the old days, John Newton pitched countless shows to television networks. It wasn’t easy, but it was a living. Today, Newton is still pitching, but now it’s to buttoned-down corporate types who want business videos or service organizations looking for an occasional public service announcement on local channels. At 58, the Studio City-based Newton has given up on the major television networks. “If you’re an independent producer, there’s no way you’re going to get a chance to pitch your project to network,” he said. Ten years ago, the U.S. Congress passed the Cable TV Act of 1992 as a way to respond to networks’ fears of eventually losing market share to growing cable television networks. The measure lifted regulations barring the major television networks from owning the shows they aired, said Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Washington D.C.-based Media Access Project. In the decade since the law was enacted, the networks have established their own production arms to develop and create shows for the parent network, reducing production costs and giving the network a chance at syndication profits it never had before when a show ends its run. At the same time, many independent producers were locked out of a system that favored programs produced by the networks themselves. Today, lawmakers are considering putting restrictions back on the networks to limit their ability to produce, syndicate and have a financial stake in the programs they carry. But so far no measure has been drafted, according to a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-South Carolina, who is said to be researching the issue. Meanwhile, things appear to only get worse for independent producers. The fall schedule released last month by NBC-TV showed none of its five new primetime shows were produced by an independent production company. The same is true for the Fox Broadcasting Co.’s fall schedule. Newton, like other independent television producers in the Valley, is finding other ways to practice his craft, although he says he hasn’t completely given up on television. “I still talk to people and help some friends out on occasion on their shows,” he said. Northridge-based producer Hollis Rich knows all about the issues facing independent producers. Two years ago, she and her partner Brenda Lilly of Sherman Oaks quickly realized the networks were not interested in their project, the family drama “State of Grace.” “We just went over to cable and they thought it was a great show,” she said. The show, now in its second season on the ABC Family Channel, is produced on a shoestring budget: one staff writer instead of the three or four that typically work on a network show, and there has to be a very good reason to justify an expensive exterior shot. “We can’t really afford to go on location, but at least we’re shooting in Los Angeles and not in Canada,” Rich said. Lilly, who had previously worked on CBS’ “Christy” and “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose,” said moving to cable has been a challenge, but one she gladly takes. “You don’t have as big a budget and you don’t have as many people, but you can do a lot more things creatively,” she said. “You don’t have the network people telling you what to do all the time.” Marty Krofft, of Sid & Marty Krofft Pictures Corp. in Studio City, has adjusted to the difficult business environment by producing children’s shows directly for the video market. “What am I gonna do, move to Poland?” he asked. Krofft, who along with his brother Sid created “H.R. Pufnstuf” and “The Donny and Marie Show,” has also begun marketing his old shows on video. But last month, the Kroffts’ pilot of a remake of the 1960s situation comedy “Family Affair” was picked up by Burbank’s WB Network for its fall schedule. “We’re pleased about the show, but it’s still a very difficult time for independent producers who want to get their shows on the air,” he said. Newton, who produced “Temperature’s Rising” for ABC in the 1970s and several pilots during the 1980s, said he has gotten used to producing corporate videos for $50,000 and $80,000 apiece instead of television pilots for $1million to $2 million. “I’m just as busy now, but this time my meetings are with insurance people and software people instead of network people,” he said, noting that he averages about 10 to 15 corporate videos a year. “It’s less money and you have to work more for it, but you make a living.” Likewise, Lilly is making do with a per-episode budget that is about half of the $1 million typically spent on a network TV episode. “You make a little less money on cable, but it’s really about putting together a quality show,” she said. “That’s the bottom line.”

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