By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2007
If Fred Thompson, the onetime Tennessee senator better known to most Americans as District Attorney Arthur Branch on "Law & Order," runs for president, some fans may be in for a letdown. Television stations are expected to suspend reruns of the show if he makes a real-life bid for the White House.
Federal campaign law requires broadcasters to give all candidates equal time on the airwaves. That rule applies to entertainment programs like "Law & Order," meaning stations that run the show would be required to give other GOP candidates a like amount of prime-time exposure.
With as many as a dozen or more Republican candidates competing for the nomination, that would be prohibitively expensive.
"As a practical matter, [the television stations] would in all likelihood have to pull all of the Fred Thompson shows for the duration of his candidacy," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project.
Thompson, who remains a member of the "L&O" cast, would likely leave the show if he decides to run, observers said.
The equal-time provision, enforced by the Federal Communications Commission, has been a staple of political campaigning for decades. Its primary goal is to make sure that candidates cannot be frozen out of crucial television time for their campaign commercials.
Candidates' appearances on newscasts, interview programs and at news events are exempted from the rule. So are incidental appearances in documentaries.
But the rule has been applied to television and movie stars in the past.
During the 2003 gubernatorial race in California, television stations dropped all Arnold Schwarzenegger movies out of fear that showing them would require them to give countless hours of free airtime to all 134 other candidates for governor.
Stations also dropped "Bedtime for Bonzo" and other Ronald Reagan movies during his campaigns for governor of California and president.
"Yes, this is a kind of weird application of what is a very good law," Schwartzman said.
There is potential good news for "Law & Order" fans. The FCC rules have never been applied to cable channels, though several legal experts said cable often abides by an equal-time guideline in the hopes of avoiding a legal case that would set a precedent.
Thompson's situation could spark such a case, though a spokesman for NBC Universal, which syndicates "Law & Order," said the network had no comment.
The TNT cable network shows several hours of "Law & Order" reruns every day and often holds all-day marathons. If that continues while Thompson is running for office, one of his rivals could seek to apply the equal-time rule to cable TV.
To do that, the other candidates would have to monitor each of Thompson's appearances, count the minutes he appeared, and then request equal time within seven days of each episode.
Only the actual time that Thompson appears in each episode is counted, legal experts said.
But even if Thompson announces that he's getting in the race, the equal-time provisions -- and the blackout for the reruns -- would not immediately kick in. The law applies only to candidates whose names appear on official state ballots, a step that none of the candidates have yet taken.
"All they've done is filed papers," said Jack Goodman, the former general counsel for the National Association of Broadcasters and now a Washington attorney. That doesn't trigger the rule, he said.