FCC prodded on access rule

The owner of a CBS affiliate in Orlando intends to ask a federal court today to force the FCC to act on a longstanding petition calling for elimination of the primetime access rule.

First Media L.P., which owns WCPX-TV Orlando, will ask the U.S. Court of Appeals here to order the FCC to decide the merits of its PTAR challenge.

First Media launched its PTAR assault in April 1990 by arguing that the regulation — which requires network affils in the top 50 markets to set aside an hour of primetime for non-network programming — violates its First Amendment rights to program whatever it so desires in the access slot.

Request ignored

The First Media request was immediately relegated to an FCC back burner, where it has remained ever since. In today’s court filing, First Media states that “by allowing the petition to languish for so long, the (FCC) has abdicated its responsibility to decide pending matters within a reasonable time. Under the circumstances, the extraordinary remedy … to compel commission action is warranted.”

If the FCC nixes PTAR, First Media says it will “revise its programming schedule to broadcast off-network programs that are of greater appeal to the public in WCPX-TV’s service area.”

The appeals court here will be under no immediate obligation to force FCC action on the case. However, by bringing the case to the court’s attention, it’s believed the intent of First Media is to “light a fire” under the FCC and its new chairman, Reed Hundt.

PTAR, which was enacted in the 1970s to limit network dominance and spur program diversity, helped launch a firstrun syndication industry of gameshows and tabloid TV programs dominated by King World and Paramount.

Any proposed FCC tinkering with the rule would undoubtedly prompt a lobbying donnybrook on par with the bloody fin-syn wars fought at the agency in the last few years.

Industry split

Hollywood is split on whether the rule should be changed. Those companies with a successful firstrun operation support its retention in full; those that do not favor a plan put forth by the Walt Disney Co. that would allow web affils in the top 50 markets to air off-network reruns in access.

It’s believed the Big Three networks would support the Disney proposal, if not the complete abolition of PTAR. Independent TV stations, however, remain committed to retention of PTAR in its entirety due to their ability to counter-program in access with popular off-net reruns.

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