This run could ruin the reruns

Times Staff Writers

The crowded field of Republican presidential contenders is not the only group waiting nervously to see if Fred Thompson jumps into the race.

For television networks that air programs starring the former Tennessee senator, his 2008 candidacy could cause a host of complications relating to the equal-time rule, which regulates how broadcasters treat political candidates. The fact that Thompson’s gig on “Law & Order” places him on one of TV’s most ubiquitous series makes the situation even thornier.

In the last two decades, the gravelly voiced attorney has developed a career as a character actor, typically cast as authority figures in such movies as “The Hunt for Red October” and “In the Line of Fire.” But he’s best known for his role as gruff Dist. Atty. Arthur Branch on NBC’s “Law & Order,” which plays in constant rotation on TNT.


If Thompson enters the campaign, his on-screen alter egos may no longer get airtime.

Because of federal equal-time provisions, broadcasters that run programs featuring Thompson would open themselves up to requests from other candidates for an equivalent platform. With at least 10 other Republican hopefuls, that could be a daunting prospect.

NBC has already decided that if Thompson runs, it will replace any “Law & Order” episodes he’s in with repeats that do not feature the former senator. (The network has not yet decided whether to bring the program back in the fall, but if it is renewed and Thompson launches a presidential bid, he would presumably be recast.)

“We would just have to work around it,” said NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Marks.

But the situation is more complicated for cable networks, on which viewers can tune into “Law & Order” and its two spin-offs nearly any hour of the day. TNT builds its schedule around a diet of “Law & Order” repeats -- as many as eight episodes a day. Since Thompson is in more than 100 episodes over five seasons, excising the programs in which he’s featured could seriously erode the network’s lineup.

TNT officials are still mulling over how they would handle the matter, in large part because the question of whether the equal-time rule applies to cable remains murky. Federal Communications Commission rules written in the 1970s, before the explosion of cable channels, require cable operators to provide equal time to opponents of candidates featured on original programs but don’t address the role of cable networks. Since the FCC has never ruled on such a complaint, the industry has few guidelines to draw from.

Thompson’s candidacy would “force some significant decision-making,” said Kathleen Kirby, a communications attorney at Wiley Rein in Washington, D.C. “It’s a gray area.”

Kirby predicted that cable networks would likely follow the path they have taken in the past, when they preemptively yanked programs featuring political candidates to avoid triggering a precedent-setting ruling. During the 2003 California recall election, for example, both FX and the Sci Fi Channel pulled movies featuring then gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger.

If Thompson runs and cable networks keep playing the “Law & Order” episodes that he’s in, his tough-talking, resolute demeanor on the show could be a boon, political strategists said.

“You couldn’t ask for a better character as a template for a presidential candidate,” said Dan Schnur, who was communications director for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2000.

Still, Thompson’s TV role would only take him so far, Schnur added. “It’s hard to see it giving him a substantial advantage over the long run.”

It’s unclear how much time networks have to sort out how to handle the issue, since the equal-time provision kicks in once a publicly announced candidate engages in a “substantial showing” of candidacy, such as raising money and giving speeches, according to the FCC.

With Thompson poised to give a high-profile speech in Orange County today, television executives are already pondering how they would cope with his candidacy.

NBC Universal, which syndicates the “Law & Order” franchise, is considering not distributing 11 episodes of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and two episodes of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” that feature Thompson’s character, according to a source familiar with the discussions. (Repeats of “Criminal Intent” air on Bravo, while USA runs both series. They are also being syndicated for broadcast for the first time this fall.)

Meanwhile, HBO has decided to proceed with its May 27 premiere of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” an original movie in which Thompson has a small part as President Ulysses S. Grant. The film will play on HBO channels into the summer.

“Given Mr. Thompson’s exceedingly brief appearance in our movie, not to mention the costume and makeup that obscures his identity, we hardly think the rule applies,” said spokesman Quentin Schaffer, adding that if any presidential candidates demand free airtime as a result, “they should probably don beards and 18th century attire.”

Congress exempted newscasts from the equal-time rule in 1959, but entertainment programs have long been subject to the provision, which led stations to refrain from airing Ronald Reagan’s movies during his presidential campaigns.

“It is an odd artifact of a set of principles that for the most part have worked extremely well,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a public-interest law firm.

But the issue has rankled actors turned politicians such as George Takei, who complained that he lost residuals when a local station pulled repeats of “Star Trek” featuring his character Mr. Sulu during his 1973 race for the Los Angeles City Council.

Many television veterans share his frustration. “I think it’s ludicrous that equal time applies to broadcast entertainment programming,” said Dick Wolf, creator of the “Law & Order” franchise.

This wouldn’t be the first time that Thompson’s acting career has collided with his political aspirations. When NBC affiliates in Tennessee aired the sports comedy “Necessary Roughness” (featuring Thompson as a university president) during his 1994 Senate bid, they were forced to give his opponent the same amount of airtime as his character received in the movie: four minutes and 13 seconds.

Matea Gold reported from New York and Jim Puzzanghera reported from Washington, D.C.