FCC SEALS FIN-SYN’S DEATH

Stick a fork in the fin-syn rules: They’re done.

The Federal Communications Commission said Sept. 6 that the last remnants of Hollywood’s long-treasured financial interest & syndication regs will expire as soon as a notice is published in the Federal Register. That’s two months earlier than the FCC’s planned Nov. 10 deadline for killing off the rules.

In a unanimous vote, the FCC said Hollywood’s pro-fin-syn contingent failed to make the case for keeping the rules until November.

Representatives of the Big Three networks hailed the accelerated demise of fin-syn, though the rule’s early axing will have no practical impact on this fall’s TV programming.

“The fat lady has finally sung,” crowed CBS lobbyist Marty Franks.

“Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty,” joked NBC counsel Rick Cotton.

Elimination of the rules clears the way for studio-web mergers, with the real question to be how much of a role the networks will take in producing and owning their own programs. The issue arose during a panel featuring the four entertainment division presidents in Beverly Hills on Sept. 6, with execs insisting that while the network might win ties when its own shows are involved, the prime incentive is still to do what’s best for the network itself.

“If it’s a 50-50 (call), of course” the network’s inhouse show wins, said CBS’ Leslie Moonves. “Hit’s a 51-49, no.”

Nevertheless, Hollywood representatives predictably were less thrilled than their network counterparts. Diane Killory, a D.C.-based lawyer for the Coalition to Preserve the Fin-Syn Rules, called the announcement a “sad day for programming diversity.”

Though Killory said her group is weighing an appeal, last week’s news appears to end a 25-year battle about TV programming and how shows are financed.

The FCC adopted fin-syn in 1970 to limit network dominance of the primetime schedule. Webs were barred from owning a stake in programs supplied by studios and indie producers.

In 1991, the FCC relaxed some restrictions against the networks, but preserved Hollywood’s grip on TV program production. That decision later was overturned by a Chicago federal appeals court in a controversial opinion written by Judge Richard Posner.

Hollywood fought hard for Posner’s recusal from the case, as the former law professor once had been hired by CBS to sound off against fin-syn-related antitrust consent decrees. But Posner remained and stood firm in his opinion.

Posner’s blistering criticism of the FCC’s revised rules prompted the agency to reverse course and ultimately side with the networks.

Brian Lowry in L.A. contributed to this report.

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