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Same reruns on too many channels? FCC says no more. Panel's ruling considered defeat for cable operators

The Federal Communications Commission last week issued controversial new rulings on syndicated TV reruns, which may leave fans of ``M*A*S*H,'' ``Hawaii Five-O,'' and ``The Cosby Show'' twirling their dials and antennas for a clear picture of what the ruling will mean to them. The FCC voted 3 to 0 to permit local broadcasters who have bought exclusive rights to a syndicated show like ``M*A*S*H'' to air it without competition from local cable TV systems or superstations. The rules, which will take effect in a year, require the cable owners or superstations to black out or substitute programs for the ``syndexes'' (trade jargon for syndicated exclusives). The blackouts, in theory, will stop the fragmentation of viewership caused when a local station has to vie for a ``M*A*S*H'' show, for instance, with two other competitors who are running it on cable and so receives only one-third of its potential share of viewers. For local broadcasters that means less ad revenue with which to buy programming.

Part of the theory behind the FCC ruling is that local cable companies and superstations, faced with the need to black out duplicate syndicated shows, will be impelled to create fresh, original programming to fill those voids and that this upgrade in programming will benefit viewers.

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But TV industry-watchers with long memories question whether practice will follow theory. They point out that in the 1970s, when the FCC decreed that early evening prime time on the networks be devoted to a family-viewing hour programmed by local stations - a move designed to encourage fresh, original and diversified programs - the result was a glut of game shows like ``Jeopardy'' and ``Wheel of Fortune'' in that time slot.

FCC and industry views of the impact of the rulings are as varied as syndexes of ``The Honeymooners'' and ``Magnum, P.I.''

Kenneth Gordon, the FCC senior staff economist who had a major role in drafting the rulings, says, ``There has been enormous duplication and diversion of viewers from local stations to distant stations. The money doesn't find its way back to local broadcasting markets. So viewers are ... not getting as good programming if the broadcasters aren't in a good [financial] position to bid for products.''

He also points out that the 51 percent of the United States population who don't have access to cable ``are a large concern. ... We expect that what will happen is, we will have a richer and more diverse mix of programming coming to the public ... to the extent that the cable systems will be demanding new programming to go in these places.''

Could that replacement be more game shows? ``That's up to them - whatever makes the viewers happiest,'' says Mr. Gordon. ``The most popular syndicated program in the US is `Wheel of Fortune,' and `Jeopardy' is No. 2.''

Under the rulings, who wins?

``The customer wins, in the larger view,'' Gordon continues. ``It cuts down on reruns; new programming is encouraged.'' He adds, ``Of course, the cable operators feel they have not won, and the broadcasters feel they have, and there's a sense in which that's true. The cable owners do have to comply. This is a competitive tool not available before'' to broadcasters.

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At the National Association of Broadcasters, chief executive officer Edward O. Fritts issued a statement that ``Syndex is a step toward returning equity to the marketplace. It's also a victory for consumers. Diversity again will be a watchword in programming.'' An NAB spokesman notes that, up until now, broadcasters have been paying for exclusivity in syndication but not getting it because of superstations and other distant signals brought in via cable.

National Cable Television Association (NCTA) president James Mooney was unavailable for comment but had earlier told the Associated Press that ``people whose favorite programs disappear will be angered and bewildered,'' and the costs of syndicated programming will go up.

Lynn McReynolds, director of public affairs at NCTA, said the FCC rules ``mean that a number of programs consumers used to watch will be unavailable. Cable channels will be forced to black out programs on distant broadcast signals that consumers want to watch. In terms of victory we don't consider it a victory, and they [broadcasters] apparently do.''

She also points out that ``syndicates can invoke national programming blackouts on newly syndicated programs like `The Cosby Show,' being syndicated for the first time this year. If [superstation] WWOR in New York has the rights to Cosby syndication, they could say every cable system in the country that carries WWOR carries the Cosby show for a year [exclusively], regardless of whether the local broadcasters have bought the rights.'' The FCC rules also enable superstations to buy exclusivity for their product on a nationwide basis to avoid blackouts.

Ms. McReynolds adds that the NCTA has ``flatly stated we're going to take [the FCC] to court on the question of jurisdiction. ... The 1984 Cable Act and the 1976 Copyright Act prevent them from ... reimposing any content regulation on cable.'' (The FCC in 1980 had repealed the syndicated exclusivity rules.)

Viacom Entertainment Group, a major program syndicator, isn't commenting until it has had time to study the rules.

The FCC's Mr. Gordon thinks he knows what's ahead for the new rules. ``Will there be lawsuits? You betcha.''

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