T Dog’s Think Tank: Thank you, Jim

Last week, two programs reminded us how much the words “vertical integration” meant to the TV business.

The possible renewals of tired sitcoms According to Jim and Scrubs.

Both come from the same studio (ABC Studios) and both are being considered for pickups by ABC next season, despite the fact both have drawn less and less viewers over the last few years (Jim is averaging only 4 million this season.)

Now, if you have read this blog in its first few months, you know how yours truly feels about According to Jim and Jim Belushi. Not exactly a fan.

The last time I heard, Scrubs was airing on NBC, where its been for seven seasons. Barring any legal action from the Peacock Network (which is likely), Scrubs is headed to the alphabet network this fall.

So, why is ABC is considering picking up Scrubs and According to Jim, despite ratings that should make them more than eligible for cancellation?

Simple. The Walt Disney Co. owns ABC. Disney also owns ABC studios. Disney is also the syndicator of both shows through Disney-ABC Domestic Television. ABC can continue to make money from syndication sales and revenue of both shows. That’s what we call in the business “vertical integration”.

Never mind the fact According to Jim and Scrubs are nowhere near the ratings and revenue achieved by fellow off-network stalwarts Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, and Seinfeld, and never will be. Believe me, According to Jim would have long been gone and Scrubs wouldn’t be even considered for a pickup had the shows been produced by someone else.

Don’t you love this “vertical integration?”

There was something that used to prevent these actions from happening. It was called the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules, or fin-syn, as it was more commonly known. It was a set of rules the FCC imposed on the Big 3 networks in 1970, because they controlled too much of the business.

Fin-syn was supposed to diversify the business, and it did – somewhat – with more and more independent producers popping up on the prime-time landscape. But when the Fox network rose to respectability, and dramatic changes happened to the TV industry, the FCC abolished the rules in 1991, setting them up for their sunset four years later.

In the years since, we’ve seen the networks enter back into the syndication business by merging with Hollywood studios, notably ABC with Disney, CBS with Paramount and Viacom, and NBC with Universal. The networks started putting their own-produced shows on their schedules in greater numbers, squeezing out the indie producers. Then, the television business fragmented like crazy, thanks to the rapid rise of viewing options in the average household.

After all, you can connect the dots – Republicans (ironically, except for Reagan) hated fin-syn and got rid of it; and judging by the comments on message boards supporting Jim, the show is well-liked by conservatives. After all, they hate the idea of the government stepping in and running things, right?

Oh yeah. Except in the cases of sex, violence, and profanity on TV and then they want government regulation. Gotcha.

So it seems the demise of fin-syn was intended to keep a no-talent hack like Jim Belushi gainfully employed. After all, he’s a hot commodity these days (at least in the eyes of media companies) – he was recently tapped to host WGN-TV’s 60th anniversary celebration. After all, they do air According to Jim reruns. And when the Chicago Tribune (whose parent company also owns WGN-TV) wants a “celebrity perspective” on anything regarding Chicago sports, they run to Belushi, because they supposedly think his I.Q. is in the hundreds.

Don’t you love this “vertical integration”?

Yes, even Jim Belushi can accomplish this feat. The TV business is so much better for it.

So much better that only 45 percent of prime-time viewers watch the five major networks so far this season, down tremendously from the already low number last year, thanks in part to the writers’ strike. Friday and Saturday nights in prime-time these days are virtual wastelands. More and more viewers are fed up with the lackluster quality of network television (more Nickelodeon game show retreads, anyone?) Local TV ratings continue to erode. And so on. And so on.

And what do the major networks do? Rubber-stamp shows for renewal. Piss viewers off by having “countdown clocks” on-screen while a program is on, telling us when the next show begins (all it means to me is a countdown to change the channel.) Put on more and more unwatchable junk, like The Race for the Next Celebrity Bachelor Apprentice, or something.

And you thought industry observers said the demise of fin-syn would lead to better programming.

The networks act like there is nothing wrong with the medium. Why should they? Once again, they have all the power, they make all the money, and they pretend to live in their own little world. Hey louts, there’s a signpost up ahead – your next stop – The Trouble Zone. Radio’s already there. And look what mess that medium is in.

Of course, the people who run radio are about as clueless as the people who run television and the people who run the deregulation-happy FCC.

But as along they answer to Wall Street and only Wall Street and not the public and the FCC has no problem with it, the quality of both businesses will continue to suffer.

And our reward? More Jim Belushi. Gee, thanks. Thanks a lot.