Sitcoms Banging On Access Door

With a flood of network sitcoms about to enter syndication and a dearth of slots available for them, distributors are worried that the gold mine of revenues from reruns is in danger of drying up.

Among the most worried is the Walt Disney Co., which is leading the charge in a battle to repeal part of the 20-year-old primetime access rule.

Disney is taking aim at the PTAR provision that bars affiliates in the top 50 markets from airing off-network programming between 7 and 8 p.m.

Repeal would make 150 more stations – among them the most affluent in the country – potential customers for off-net programming. The secondary market is crucial for distribs because network license fees don’t allow them to recoup costs on such programming.

An open letter signed by Rich Frank, president of motion pics and tv for the Walt Disney Group, is to be sent out to interested parties this week. It follows a letter from the Walt Disney Co. that was sent last December to 150 stations across the country soliciting their comments and support on the issue. Those gestures follow an 18-page filing and supporting charts logged with the Federal Communications Commission last November.

Together they argue that the ruling has outlived its usefulness and gives an unfair advantage to a handful of firstrun syndicators, as well as to indie stations.

“A few powerful syndicators are finding that the rule delivers them a very lucrative market on a government-sanctioned silver platter,” Frank argues. “And independent stations aren’t complaining because PTAR puts them firmly in the driver’s seat when bidding for off-net shows.”

More specific points:

* A full 78% of all access slots in the top 50 markets currently are filled by only five shows produced by just two companies: King World and Paramount.

* Fox has taken 129 formerly independent stations – which once would have bought off-network syndicated shows or movies in primetime – and converted them to Fox affiliates. When Fox officially is recognized as a network, 50 major stations will immediately cease to be buyers of off-network programming. Making matters worse, Fox’ network programming soon will be adding to the glut on the syndication market.

* The quality of network programming will be hurt if syndication revenues don’t bring producers healthy returns.

* Repeal will not kill off firstrun syndication. In markets 51 to 100, only 23% of affiliates broadcast off-network programs in access. There’s no reason to think there would be a rush by affiliates in the top 50 markets to take sitcoms away from independent stations.

The battle that looms for Disney – and whatever other syndicators and affiliate stations join them in the lobbying effort – will be to convince the FCC that their companies’ self-interest dove-tails more closely with the so-called public interest than do the views of the independent station/firstrun lobby.

The battle is expected to be joined as soon as the FCC rules on modifications to the financial interest and syndication rules. Action is expected March 14.

“I would predict that come March 15th there will be pressure to take up arguments for the partial repeal of PTAR,” Frank says.

So far, only a few groups have come on board in tentative support. The ABC and CBS affiliate boards and two stations groups – Booneville Intl. and First Media – have at least gingerly picked up that challenge filing their own petitions with the FCC.

And, acting separately, Columbia Pictures TV has lodged its own request for a PTAR waiver in order to sell future episodes of “Married.. . With Children,” technically not a network sitcom, to affiliates that might wish to air the show in access.

Several others publicly stated their feelings on the issue, including Warner Bros, syndication topper Dick Robertson and station program directors Judy Girard (WNBC-TV), Barry Schulman (WBZ-TV) and Larry Cazavan (WATE-TV), during a panel discussion at NATPE last month.

Proponents of PTAR argue that a repeal would squeeze out smaller syndicators with firstrun fare and push weaker independent stations to the wall.

Says Michael Finkelstein, CEO of Renaissance Communications Corp., a company with five indie stations: “Some people have short memories. Just because two or three companies currently have a lock on access doesn’t obviate PTAR’s overall effectiveness.

“The current situation in access won’t last forever,” he argues. “Others will eventually step up to the plate. Moreover, just because a bunch of syndicators have an oversupply of sitcoms to funnel into the market doesn’t mean that an effective ruling should be overturned so that they can get better prices.”

Repeal of the PTAR ban would allow reruns of “Roseanne” or “Family Matters,” for example, to be sold to interested affiliates in top markets for the lucrative 7 to 8 p.m. slots. That would in turn buoy prices for sitcoms and also, most probably, for competing firstrun fare.

Adds Jack Fentress, v.p. of programming of Petry rep firm: “Repealing that part of PTAR could effectively cripple weaker independent stations who would find themselves squeezed out of the bidding for lucrative shows. They could end up airing ‘Mister Ed’ reruns in access.”

Another program rep reckoned that reruns of “Empty Nest” – an upcoming Disney sitcom – could bring the syndicator 25% more in revenues if the show were shopped around to affiliates rather than only to indies.

Even some major syndicators, including Paramount, are thought to be against tinkering with PTAR. But most observers say Columbia, Warner Bros, and MCA probably would support a repeal. None would comment on the record about their positions.

The PTAR ruling was established in 1971 to limit the excessive control of the networks on programming, and encourage diversity of programming genres and programming sources.

For a while, everyone agrees, it worked. In the five years following PTAR’s passage, the genres of programming increased more than 100% and programming suppliers to access increased threefold, according to All American TV topper George Back. Currently, however, there are only three program genres represented in top 50 access slots, and only a handful of syndicators supplying those slots.

Some whose business straddles both firstrun syndication and network production, or who own a mixture of independent and affiliate stations, are expected to have heated discussions about what side of the issue they are on.

Independent stations and their trade association INTV pledged last month to fight to the death for the retention of the entire rule. Many syndicators – with firstrun giant King World at their head – are expected to come out strongly in favor of no changes.

Says David Sifford, topper of Tribune Entertainment, which owns a major independent station group and a syndicator of firstrun programming: “Repealing PTAR would be devastating to the business. How could any potential King Worlds come to the fore if it weren’t for this ruling?”

But says one legal counsel to a major station group in Washington: “That’s what many said about finsyn and look what the network lobbying effort has wrought. I don’t think the FCC can continue for long to ignore an issue which was at its inception tied to the finsyn ruling. They’ll have to take a look at it if there’s enough pressure.”

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