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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Creativity and the Race for Syndication

Jessica Silliman

"Working in the entertainment industry is different than any other industry in the United States-it believes that it has its own set of rules, ethics and morals that can be altered when it feels like it," said Danielle Boyle.

Danielle graduated from Santa Clara University and quickly got a job in the television industry as a production assistant. Soon after entering the business, she was disheartened to find the degree to which the industry was all about profit. She watched major networks lay off hundreds of employees and make significant structural changes, what seemed to her a reckless destruction of successful shows.

"Because of the focus on immediate profit, these networks don't take any risks," she said. "They look to the cookie-cutter model television shows instead of looking to independent producers. They want the control of their own shows and, therefore, virtually eliminate any outside creativity."

Danielle worked for an independent production company which, despite its recent successes, still struggled to make it in the world of production. Its last comedy sitcom was a hit but was canceled after seven years because of low revenue. Though viewership remained high, the networks were only interested in purchasing shows that would lead to future syndication and DVD sales-therefore having the ability to give the network profit for years to come.

But independent producers were thinking about profits along the same lines as the networks. Because of such future potential profits, independent producers were hanging on tenaciously to rights to the possible future syndication and DVD sales. Danielle's independent company owned the show and the rights to future syndication profits and wasn't willing to give them up. Since the future profits were tied up, the network dropped the show. "If our company produced a pilot that was hilarious, had a great cast and tested through the roof, no network would buy it because they wouldn't be given money later on," said Danielle.

As a result, great scripts never reach the television screen. "Independent producers want access to future profits-they know their shows are creative and could really take off if given the chance," said Danielle, "but the industry is so focused on future profits that they are willing to take a lower quality show and hope it makes it to syndication."

Most of these shows don't make it past 100 episodes (what you need to syndicate) because the show is bad to begin with.

"If I had the power to fight, I would," said Danielle. "But I would be taking on an entire industry structure. I generally just shake my head and wonder what happened to the television industry."

"The focus on the bottom line makes me want to go back to film or just get out altogether," she said.

And, as a result of this system, Danielle thought, a perverse law of supply and demand was set in place: Potentially great, independently produced shows never get past the development stage while banal productions get bought, but then aren't good enough to get to syndication. In the end, everybody loses.

Discussion Questions:

  • What do you think is the principal ethical challenge faced by Danielle?
  • Do you agree with Danielle's analysis of the economics and ethics of the television business?
  • Do you think it is unethical for a company to not take creative risks in favor of only making money?
  • Do you think that Danielle should, as she wonders, "go back to film or just get out altogether?" Why or why not?
  • How can someone respond when a problem relates to an entire industry?

Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

June 2007

Jun 1, 2007