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Writers Guild lobbies DC on Comcast/Time Warner merger

Jacob and Vanessa are crowned king and queen of the homecoming dance on the first episode of gritty high school drama "East Los High"
East Los High Productions
Jacob and Vanessa are crowned king and queen of the homecoming dance on the first episode of gritty high school drama "East Los High"

One of the most powerful unions in Hollywood is lobbying in Washington this week, trying to protect jobs for its members. The Writers Guild of America, which represents more than 15,000 movie and TV writers nationwide, is focused on stopping cable mergers.

In the old days, says TV writer Patric Veronne, there were nearly three dozen companies making TV shows. Now, there are six multinationals.

In an informal Capitol Hill briefing, the former head of the Writers Guild of America told Congressional staffers and freshman Democratic Congressman Tony Cardenas of the San Fernando Valley that allowing Comcast – which owns NBC/Universal – to merge with Time Warner would produce a company that not only creates content, but would control distribution. "And when you own the cradle to the grave," he says, "it has a very chilling effect on the way writers and actors and directors and other creative types can do our work."

This $45 billion merged company would serve nearly one in three pay-TV customers. Veronne says viewers would be seeing a lot less content from any other producer, since the company would give preference to its home-grown products. 

The WGA says a newly merged Comcast would provide content to 90% of the American Hispanic market. Writer Alfredo Barrios, a veteran of the "Law and Order" franchise and executive producer of "Burn Notice," says as distribution becomes consolidated, he fears a return to homogenization.

Initially, cable was the place for niche entertainment, catering to more diverse audiences. "We could never do that on broadcast networks."

Now, he says, the innovators have moved online. This year, 28 new television series will premiere online via Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, Yahoo! and even Playstation. Barrios says he just sold a show to Amazon with a Latina lead character that was turned down by every cable and broadcast network.

The diversity pitch resonated with Cardenas, who recalled the early days of film and TV when Anthony Quinn played the Latino characters and Latino actors took more bland stage names. "I would never want my children to feel they had to change their name in order to be successful."

The WGA also opposes the proposed AT&T/DirecTV merger. That $48.5 billion deal also awaits FCC approval. A merger would create a company providing a quarter of all pay-TV services in the country.

The cable companies disagree with the guild about the benefits of the mergers. Comcast argues that its merger  with Time Warner will lead to the "development of new and innovative products and services," as well as provide faster broadband speeds and improved reliability.  DirecTV says its merger with AT&T  "will better meet consumers’ future viewing and programming preferences."

Congress has little say in the merger decision. That rests with the Federal Communications Commission. The WGA group met Monday with both the Justice Department and the FCC, making the same case. Verrone says staffers took a lot of notes, but he has no idea which way the regulators will rule. 

It's been more than half a century since the Writers Guild has actively lobbied in Washington. Verrone says the WGA stayed out of politics since its members' 1947 appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee where writers were "led away in handcuffs." He says during that "quiet period,"  media companies became more powerful. The Guild's lobbying is designed to regain a seat at the bargaining table.