Controlling Prime-Time: Organizational Concentration and Network Television Programming Strategies

Article excerpt


In a pioneering study of the production of popular culture, Peterson and Berger (1975, 1996) examined whether industrial concentration among producers of popular music leads to homogeneity in the recordings produced by that industry. Their thesis--that popular culture industries are subject to "cycles of symbol production"--is based on two hypotheses. The first is that long-term trends toward oligopoly in popular culture industries are periodically punctuated by relatively brief periods of competition and innovation. The second is that industrial concentration produces homogeneity of culture products and, conversely, competition fosters diversity. If both hypotheses are correct, then we should observe cyclical trends in the diversity of a popular culture industry's products that follow the cycles of industrial concentration. Peterson and Berger's data from the recording industry for the period from 1948 through 1973 supported both hypotheses. Subsequent research has modified their thesis to take into account new organizational forms in the recording industry. For example, Lopes (1992) and Dowd (1992, in press) document the emergence of a new, hybrid organizational form in which music labels run by semi-autonomous subunits allow media conglomerates to reap the benefits of independent production while maintaining corporate control. Nevertheless, the general finding that market structure and organizational strategy shape the diversity and form of popular music remains intact.

Our article is part of a larger project to examine whether the thesis of "cycles of symbol production" applies to the production of network prime-time television programming. In this work, we are examining: (1) trends in concentration among the suppliers of prime-time programming; and (2) whether periods of high concentration among suppliers are associated with greater homogeneity in program content. Although we do not measure program content directly in the results reported here (a formidable task), we do examine how issues of content and quality are invoked in industry debates. Specifically, our focus is on the terms of the debate over market concentration and programming diversity and whether television deregulation has shifted the balance of market power among suppliers of prime-time network programming. We explore these issues at two levels. First, we examine qualitatively the rhetorical claims made by parties with different economic interests about network financial stakes in programming and control over the creative process. Second, we quantitatively analyze trends in the networks' approaches to acquiring new series for the prime-time schedule.

The Fin-Syn Rules

The relationship between concentration and diversity of program content is one that is debated within the television industry itself. An issue in the late 1980s and early 1990s was whether FCC policies known as the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules (or "Fin-Syn") had reduced the level of concentration in the industry and whether elimination of those rules would lead to greater concentration and homogeneity of content. From 1970 to the early 1990s, the Fin-Syn Rules constrained the then three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) from producing all but a small amount of the programs they broadcast in prime time and barred them from participating in the syndication of prime-time series.

At the time they were implemented in the early 1970s, the rationale for the Fin-Syn Rules was as follows. Original prime-time programming reached U.S. homes through limited channels of distribution--basically, the three major networks. If the networks, which control distribution, were also allowed to profit from the production of series, then they would have little incentive to look to independent producers for sources of programming. Decisions about what kinds of television series to develop would be made by network executives, and the programming would originate from a small group of affiliated producers. …