Thursday, November 8, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bigger stakes than "The Daily Show"

The roots of the writers strike that began Monday go back to the Telecommunication Act of 1996. The legislation launched a wave of media consolidation that forever changed what America watches on TV.

Early casualties of this strike will be the shows with scripts on topical events. Farewell Letterman, Leno, Stewart and Colbert. Reruns last only so long. If this stretches out, the next tier to go will be the dramas that work a few weeks in advance. Adieu "Grey's Anatomy," "Heroes" and those daily doses of soaps. Viewers had better brace themselves for another round of reality programming that had its genesis in past labor disputes.

The battleground between the studios and the Writers Guild of America is familiar turf: residuals. How much should writers be paid when their work is rebroadcast again and again? The dispute has always been defined by technology.

Early contracts were about reruns on television. In 1988, the walkout was over payments for material for VCRs and distribution overseas. DVDs followed hard and fast. Now, the economic tension is about residuals for downloads via digital media: iPods, cellphones and computers.

A defining change, according to Jeffrey Stepakoff, a television writer and producer for 18 years, was the 1996 Federal Communications Commission overhaul that allowed networks to produce and own their shows as well as distribute them.

Stepakoff is author of "Billion-Dollar Kiss," a new book that details how studios and media outlets eventually shrank to a half-dozen production venues from 29 in the 1980s. The market for writers withered, and along with it the opportunity for diverse programming from independent, creative voices.

Viewers have paid a price in the quality and originality of the characters and story lines they see on television. Reality TV, from "COPS" to "Dancing with the Stars," is cheap to produce, entertaining when it works, and wretched when it does not.

The current round of FCC media-ownership hearings that end Friday in Seattle began last spring in Los Angeles. Actors, producers and musicians asked that independent voices be restored.

Creative, original work that not only fuels an industry but also informs and sustains a democracy is not getting produced and aired.

Media consolidation is harmful for America. The FCC and Congress launched this mess, with no clue how bad it would get. Do not make it any worse.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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