‘Access’ Rule May No Longer Rule

Pick one regulation to dub the Energizer Bunny of TV rules, and you might settle on the primetime access rule. That’s the ticklish reg that requires network affiliates in the top 50 markets to set aside an hour of primetime for non-network programming.

After 25 years, PTAR keeps going and going and going, despite repeated attempts by various broadcast, Hollywood studio and FCC players to either kill or modify it.

Beltway insiders say 1995 may be the year the battery finally runs dead on PTAR, what with FCC chairman Reed Hundt having initiated the most serious review to date of the venerable rule. Early odds are that the FCC will either change or eliminate the rule by year-end.

PTAR was adopted in a cable free era when the Big Three networks dominated TV viewing. Designed to encourage program diversity and the production of local programming, PTAR instead spawned a firstrun syndication industry of tabloid TV and gameshows in the 7-8 p.m. access slot.

PTAR has undoubtedly helped feather the financial nest of independent TV stations. Since network affiliates are barred from airing off-network reruns in access, indies have traditionally bought rerun rights to the popular web programs at discounted rates and reaped a financial windfall counter programming against the likes of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Hard Copy.”

The access slot is the top revenue generator for most independent stations, says Jim Hedlund, head of Assn. of Independent Television Stations.

Hedlund says INTV is gearing for a titanic battle to preserve PTAR. “I can’t think of a federal rule that’s been in existence so long that has worked so well,” he says. Moreover, Hedlund says the rule is all the more vital now that Paramount and Time Warner have launched fifth and sixth networks with indie stations that rely on PTAR for their survival.

Walt Disney Co. TV and Telecommunications division chairman Rich Frank is urging the FCC to lift the restriction against affiliates airing network reruns in access, but he wants the government to retain the ban against the webs’ airing network programming in access.

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