Big Studios Push to End Rerun Time Rule

If incessant reruns annoy you, then brace yourself.

Soon many TV stations may be liberated from a 21-year-old federal regulation that bars them from scheduling old prime-time TV shows in the early-evening hours, so viewers could be subjected to a marathon of previously aired sitcoms and dramas each night.

At least that is what some fear could happen if Walt Disney Co. and other big Hollywood studios prevail in a lobbying campaign in Washington aimed at overturning an obscure part of the broadcast code known as the “prime-time access rule.”

Disney and other major producers want the law, known in the industry as PTAR, rescinded so they can sell reruns of TV programs such as “Home Improvement” to affiliated stations in the 50 largest TV markets for the 7-to-8 p.m. time period. Currently, stations are prohibited from airing old network prime-time shows in the hour before prime time begins.


Disney also wants the rule overturned because it would be able to charge more for syndication rights to old network prime-time series that air in the early evening on affiliated stations than it can if the shows are sold for late-night slots or to independent stations.

For Disney and the other major studios, overturning PTAR could mean tens of millions of dollars in additional profit from higher syndication revenue. The studios argue that in the 20 years since the rule was enacted, the economic landscape of broadcasting has changed radically and that current rules jeopardize the continued production of “network quality” programs.

“In a marketplace where we are going to have 500 channels, but on three of them you can’t run ‘off-network’ programming, that seems a little stupid to me,” said Rich Frank, Disney Studios president, who is leading the fight for repeal of the rule.

The law was enacted in the early 1970s, thanks largely to the efforts of the late Don McGannon, former head of Westinghouse Broadcasting. McGannon tenaciously fought and won a battle against the major networks, which wanted to expand their programming and take over one of the most lucrative time periods on the broadcasting schedule.


McGannon’s aim was noble: to give broadcasters incentive to develop and produce local programming, specifically the then-emerging “news magazine” TV shows. When it finally became law in 1971, PTAR paved the way for Westinghouse’s “PM Magazine” and other syndicated shows that soon filled the gaps between evening news and prime-time programs.

The original intent of PTAR--to foster the development of “program diversity"--was thwarted by the marketplace, however. Network affiliates, instead of developing more local programming as the law intended, went out and bought syndicated game shows and magazine programs.

The result has been not so much a rich diversity of local programming as a bumper crop of look-alike, tabloid-style TV shows. Frank said 70% of the “prime access” time periods are filled with programs produced by King World, Paramount and Fox.

Only a handful of stations ever used the time period to develop their own local programs, he added.

Broadcasters agree that PTAR did not produce the intended result.

“A few shows did evolve as a result of this, but they ran their course,” said Jon Kelly, owner of KCRA-TV in Sacramento. “It really helped out the independent stations.”

Indeed, PTAR spawned a new industry and, in the process, made some entrepreneurs enormously wealthy. Companies such as King World, which distributes the mega-hits “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in syndication, developed “first-run” programming specifically for the 7-to-8 p.m. time period.

And old prime-time reruns, which no longer could be aired on affiliated stations in the crucial hour before prime time, migrated to independent stations. The presence of old network prime-time series gave a major boost to viewing levels for independents.


The issue of PTAR has split the Hollywood production community. Studios such as Disney, which is now selling reruns of “Home Improvement” in syndication and is looking next to syndicate the NBC series “Blossom,” say the rule prevents them from maximizing profit.

Others, such as Fox, want the rule to stay in place because its repeal could affect their market position. Fox technically is still not a network because it does not regularly schedule 15 hours of prime-time programming weekly. If Fox exceeded that threshold, shows such as “The Simpsons” would become much less valuable in syndication.