FCC open to suggestions for fin-syn–the sequel

The Federal Communications Commission has officially reopened the fin-syn case, asking interested parties to comment on how the agency can better justify rules that a federal court rejected in November or whether new rules should be drafted.

The decision sets off what is expected to be a rerun of the ferocious Hollywood vs. the Big Three networks lobbying battle that preceded the FCC’s 3-2 vote in April 1991.

In that decision, the FCC relaxed financial interest and syndication rules dating from 1970 that had barred the TV networks from investing in or scooping up syndication profits from studio-produced TV shows.

The 1991 rules were overturned in November by Chicago’s U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the new regs were “unreasoned and unreasonable.”

The Chi court’s order was postponed for 120 days, however, thus giving the FCC until April 7 to devise rules that meet the court’s approval.

Thursday’s 5-0 decision to reopen the case was couched in neutral language and reached no tentative conclusions. The notice simply asked commenters to provide new ammunition to justify the 1991 rules or to propose revised rules that would gain an OK from the Chicago court.

The notice also said commenters “may want to assess” a recent FCC decision to relax rules that had barred the Big Three networks from buying cable systems.

In addition, the notice seeks comment on whether an automatic expiration date should be attached to any revised rules. FCC member Andrew Barrett, who was part of the three-vote majority for the 1991 rules along with commissioners Ervin Duggan and Sherrie Marshall, unsuccessfully fought for a “sunset” of those regs.

Sources said Barrett is likely to press for an automatic expiration in this proceeding, too, and may be leaning toward complete elimination within three years.

Accompanying Thursday’s decision was a statement from FCC chairman Al Sikes, who was thwarted in his 1991 bid to eliminate the fin-syn rules. Sikes urged commenters to focus on whether the TV networks, “if they were accorded free rein , would be more or less hospitable to prospective or nascent producers, especially those with new programming ideas.”

Sikes, who is retiring Jan. 19 and will not have a say in the new fin-syn rules, said, “I continue to strongly believe that the government should not be involved in commercial battles between TV networks and the producer community in general — especially the big multinational entertainment companies.”

Interested parties are asked to submit comments to the FCC by Feb. 1. Reply comments will be accepted by Feb. 16.

Mickey Gardner, an attorney who represents Hollywood’s fin-syn interests, said the fin-syn coalition “will vigorously participate to ensure there are continued regulatory safeguards.”

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