With a touch of Hitchcockian suspense and a dash of slapstick comedy, the financial interest and syndication rules proceeding is lurching toward a merciful conclusion at the Federal Communications Commission.

But there’s only one problem: With the pendulum swinging between total and partial repeal of the regulations, not even the sharpest Hollywood lobbyist or network lawyer has the faintest notion how the FCC commissioners will vote on March 14.

Since the finsyn fight is as much about personalities as it is about programming, here’s a rundown on the key players in the mega-bucks battle, where they stand and how they’re holding up under fire:

The FCC

Chairman Al Sikes: Sikes has rebuilt tattered FCC relations with Capitol Hill, received a huge 15% budget increase from the White House, and won kudos from public interest groups for his “reasonable” approach to regulation.

His heavy-handed pro-network position on finsyn, however, has alienated two commissioners (Ervin Duggan and Sherrie Marshall). It’s also an open secret that there’s no love lost between he and commissioner Andrew Barrett.

Sikes conceded last week he would not be surprised to be on the losing end of a 3-2 finsyn vote.

Commissioner Andrew Barrett Holding his cards closer to the vest than a poker player, Barrett has emerged as the mystery man swing vote at the five member commission – and he’s loving every minute of it. He’s played both the networks and Hollywood like a violin, and savors the sight of Sikes twisting in the wind in search of the elusive tie-breaking vote.

While the other four commissioners work to find a consensus, Barrett plans to keep them guessing a little bit longer – he’s going on vacation Feb. 22.

Commissioner James Quello: Solidly pro-network and loyal to the Republican chairman, Quello once said he hoped to craft a finsyn solution that is “equally unfair to both sides.” He supports the so-called “50-50″ plan first floated three years ago NBC (allowing the nets to acquire syndication rights to half of the programs in their lineups; after five years, the plan would expire, allowing the nets to syndicate all programming).

Quello has other concerns as well. His term expires soon and, at age 76, he’s angling for reappointment to a five-year term.

Commissioner Ervin Duggan: A rookie commissioner who’s made big waves, Duggan is New York radio shock jock Howard Stern’s worst nightmare with his anti-indecency gig. Duggan urged a “new collegiality” at the FCC in one of his early speeches, but there’s nothing collegial about finsyn.

Although he bristles at the suggestion that he is “pro-Hollywood,” Duggan’s in the independent production community corner and has nothing but disdain for the “take-no-prisoners” approach of the networks. He’s looking for a solution that’s “legally and politically sustainable.”

Commissioner Sherrie Marshall: Marshall came to the FCC after serving a brief stint at the D.C. law firm of former FCC chairman Richard Wiley, who counts CBS among his clients. Regarded initially as a “network plant,” Marshall has emphatically shed that label and now gives web lobbyists fits as Hollywood’s strongest advocate.

While a frequent tennis partner of Wiley’s, she blatantly disregards his advice on finsyn. Marshall is chief advocate of the “two-step” negotiating process that would allow webs to negotiate for finsyn rights to a show, but only after the net has placed a program on its schedule.

The network heads

Robert Wright, NBC: Unable to believe that the FCC would consider anything less than outright repeal of the rules, Wright scaled new heights of brazenness by recently hiring former four-term Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson to lobby Barrett. Thompson is a mentor of sorts to Barrett, having hired him in the 1970s and then appointing him to the Illinois Commerce Commission in 1980. Barrett’s advice to Thompson after NBC hired him: “Cash the check quick.”

Laurence Tisch, CBS: Tisch has stayed mostly in the background after committing a major gaffe at the FCC’s public hearing last December. At the meeting, network lobbyists turned green when Tisch told commissioners CBS might “warehouse” popular CBS programs from the syndication marketplace if the rules were lifted.

Daniel Burke, ABC: Regarded as the most “reasonable” of the network toppers, Burke has drawn praise for seeking a solution with Hollywood outside of the FCC. He’s left most of the nuts-and-bolts lobbying, however, to Stephen Weiswasser, the recently-named exec v.p. of the ABC Television Network Group.

Barry Diller, Fox: Diller and Fox continue to lead a charmed life at the FCC, much to the dismay of the other three networks. A waiver that exempts Fox from the finsyn restrictions will soon expire, but no problem. The FCC appears primed to change its rules so that the new finsyn regs won’t apply to Fox.

Hollywood

Jack Valenti, president, Motion Picture Assn. of America: There are a lot of Hollywood lobbyists (Mickey Gardner, Diane Killory, Bob Daly, Jerry Leider, et al), but Valenti still calls most of the shots. Like John Wayne in “The Shootist,” he’s strapped his six-shooter on for a final go around with the whippersnapper network bean counters.

Valenti is conceding the nets will get much of what they want, but he’s fighting for a “compromise” that keeps his bosses happy in Hollywood, Japan and Italy. If he gets skunked, look for Valenti to call in his chits in Congress, where lawmakers have tapped into the Hollywood PAC money pipeline for years.

Congress

John Dingell: As head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee with jurisdiction over the FCC, the powerful Michigan Democrat sent a letter to the commission last week saying, in so many words, do the right thing on finsyn and don’t worry about the political fallout.

The missive sent spin doctors from both the nets and Hollywood into a feeding frenzy, with both sides claiming victory.

Jack Brooks: Perhaps Valenti’s ultimate trump card should Barrett side with Sikes and Quello, the crusty Texas Democrat chairs the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the U.S. Dept. of Justice. Since the finsyn rules are replicated in Justice Dept. consent decrees, there’s concern in some net corners that Brooks – a Valenti ally in past battles – might pressure Justice to keep the decrees in place should the FCC repeal the rules.

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