Editorial: FCC should take stand on pre-emption

Aug 5, 2002  •  Post A Comment

It’s the latest front in the war between networks and their affiliates: the battle over the stations’ right to pre-empt network programming. And the key strategic objective for either side is to win over the Federal Communications Commission.
To that end, the affiliates filed a petition way back in March 2001 seeking relief from the FCC against alleged network bullying in several areas, including pre-emption. Now comes word that the networks have launched a counteroffensive, lobbying the FCC to rewrite its rules to place further restrictions on affiliate pre-emptions.
The stations make a good case for being given more freedom in determining what programming best serves the needs of their customers. They say they’re already severely hampered by affiliation agreements that place a strict quota on the amount of network time that can be pre-empted each year. And they point out accurately that local stations are in a better position than the networks to determine the interests of local viewers.
The networks counter that the stations are making pre-emption decisions on the basis of profit, not viewer service. They want the FCC to bar affiliates from pre-empting network shows except to air news or local public affairs programming.
It’s hard to gauge sentiment at the FCC, which appears undecided not only on whether to side with the nets or affiliates, but even on whether to jump into the fray at all. Chairman Michael Powell has been content to do nothing about the petition since it was filed by the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance more than 16 months ago. The deregulation-minded Republican has made it clear he would prefer to see the filing dismissed, as has GOP Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy.
Republican Commissioner Kevin Martin and Democrat Michael Copps want the FCC to act on the petition, but which position they would take remains unclear. Meanwhile, the pending nomination of Democrat Jonathan Adelstein to the FCC adds yet another variable to the equation.
The networks’ recent lobbying effort may finally trigger long overdue action by the FCC. But with the nets in the awkward position of trying to get new rules out of an FCC that has shown reluctance to write regulations, their pressure may ultimately cause the panel to do the right thing and rule in favor of the affiliates.