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FCC Gives Prime-Time Access Rule the Ax : Television: Regulation required network affiliates to buy non-network programming for an hour. ‘Giant effect’ seen.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The prime-time access rule, which helped turn early-evening television programs such as “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy” and “Entertainment Tonight” into household words, is history.

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday voted unanimously to abolish the 25-year-old regulation, which required the stations affiliated with ABC, NBC and CBS in each of the nation’s 50 largest cities to fill their Monday-through-Saturday slots between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. with original, non-network programming.

For example, under the rule, KNBC-TV, KCBS-TV and KABC-TV could not air reruns of any network-owned show--such as NBC’s “Seinfeld” or ABC’s “Roseanne"--during that hour. Those shows would go to other stations not associated with the network. In addition, the rule resulted in the creation of several syndicated programs such as “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy,” which were successful during the 7 p.m. hour.

With the elimination of the prime-time access rule, the network-owned and -operated stations here and affiliates in smaller cities will now be able to bid for reruns of popular network shows, providing what is expected to be unwelcome competition for local independent stations.

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In addition, the networks will benefit financially by being able to sell programs they produce to the stations they own and operate, as well as effectively getting one more hour of programming in their prime-time schedule, agency officials said.

The regulation was established by the FCC to break up the dominance that ABC, CBS and NBC had in the prime-time hours, allowing local stations to produce community-oriented programs or to buy original programming from producers to generate advertising revenue.

But the commission said the conditions that prompted the ruling no longer exist. “The networks can no longer be said to dominate the television marketplace, and the rule imposes costs by placing artificial restraints on what programming network affiliates in the top 50 prime-time markets can show during the access period,” commissioners said in a statement.

“This will have a giant, giant effect,” said Rich Frank, president of the Academy of Television Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and former president of Walt Disney Television & Telecommunications. “I’ve been screaming about this for seven years, how this should be repealed. Now stations will have a choice, and they don’t have to be limited to first-run shows or the magazine flavor of the week.”

Frank added: “Now syndicators such as King World and Viacom don’t have a monopoly anymore. This opens it up to everyone to go sell their wares.”

He said the move will also allow networks to put more money into first-run shows they produce.

However, viewers will not immediately notice any change in their television shows. The access rule will still be in effect for a year while stations make arrangements for the transition. Also, industry insiders said it is unlikely that the network-owned and -operated stations will give up original, popular syndicated fare such as “Wheel of Fortune” in favor of network reruns.

The networks could decide to begin their prime-time lineup earlier, perhaps at 7:30 p.m., network executives said.

“You’ll see shows like ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Mad About You’ on more at 7:30,” said Martin Franks, a CBS senior vice president. “Viewers will see less ‘Hard Copy'--fewer tabloids and more sitcoms.”

Syndicators such as King World and Viacom and the nation’s 450 independent TV stations--those not affiliated with one of the Big Three networks--had fought to retain the rule, while ABC, NBC and CBS, their affiliates and some program producers and syndicators such as Disney had long been pushing for its repeal.

A spokesperson for Walt Disney Co. said, “The company is happy that it has been abolished.”

ABC/Capital Cities Inc. officials said in a statement, “We’re pleased that the commission has recognized that the public interest is no longer served by this rule, given how competitive broadcasting has become.”

New networks such as Fox, Paramount and Warner Bros. or their affiliates are not subject to the prime-time access rule.

One major producer of syndicated programming--Paramount Domestic Television--did not seem to be overly concerned by the reversal.

“Despite the repeal, Paramount Domestic Television is exceptionally well positioned as one of the major players in first-run and off-network syndication,” the company said in a statement. “We have long-term deals for ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and ‘Hard Copy'--the No. 1 and No. 2 magazine shows on the air--and we expect to take advantage of the wider potential customer base for ‘Frasier’ and other off-network series, which the commission’s action will make possible.”

Officials for Viacom and King World could not be reached for comment.


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