FCC commissioner James Quello said Monday that in light of the shrinking number of truly independent TV stations, he might be willing to modify the primetime access rule.

Quello’s comments are just the latest signal that changes may be in store for PTAR, the venerable regulation that has been in effect for two decades. The FCC rule requires network affiliates in the top 50 markets to set aside an hour of primetime (usually the 7-8 p.m. slot) for non-web fare.

Independent stations have been among the most vocal supporters of the access rule. Indie support stems from their ability to air popular off-network reruns in access, while network affils in the largest markets are barred from doing so.

Quello said he has “always been kind of a sucker for independent stations.” But given the fact that indies throughout the U.S. are signing up with Paramount and Warner Bros. to become affiliated with new networks, Quello said “maybe it’s time to consider doing away with some of (PTAR).”

Quello hinted that he might support a proposal floated by the Walt Disney Co. that would modify PTAR to allow web affils in the top 50 markets to air off-network reruns in access.

Jim Popham, general counsel for the Assn. of Independent Television Stations, called it an “oversimplification” to suggest that independent stations are growing more scarce. “It’s very premature to say that we’re already in a fifth and sixth network world,” said Popham. “Just look how long it’s taken Fox to develop a fourth network.” INTV will fiercely resist PTAR changes, Popham said.

Quello’s comments came after last week’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordering the FCC to respond by March 23 to a 1990 petition filed by a CBS affiliate WCPX-TV Orlando calling for outright elimination of PTAR.

The court’s order will likely prompt the FCC to seek comment on modifying or eliminating PTAR before year-end.

Any proposed tinkering with PTAR would prompt a lobbying free-for-all among TV stations, Hollywood studios and first-run syndicators such as King-World, the distributor of access powerhouses “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy.”

There’s also a possibility that should the FCC launch a review of PTAR, it may also be forced to revisit the Fairness Doctrine. That’s because WCPX’s petition for nixing PTAR used the same rationale the FCC used in 1987 when the agency abolished the Fairness Doctrine, the rule that required broadcasters to air both sides of acontroversial issue.

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