Government regulation of television programming -- through a complex and controversial series of restrictions that includes prime-time access rules -- has failed to develop on-the-air diversity and done little to encourage other networks to enter the competition, the staff of the Federal Communications Commission concluded yesterday.
In particular, the prime-time access rule -- the most dramatic effort by the FCC to encourage development of quality of local programming -- "clearly has failed to spawn" innovative shows aside from those already cancelled by the networks themselves, the staff concluded in its report.
The prime-time rule, adopted 10 years ago, limits to three hours each evening the amount of programming the networks can offer to their affiliates in the nation's 50 largest markets.
"Although the rule may have enhanced the ability of stations to select programming by foreclosing the networks as a source, the result has not been to overwhelm the viewer with locally proudced programs or those particularly attuned to local needs and interests," the staff said.
"Instead, stations for the most part have acted in a rather predictable fashion: They have offered syndicated programs which are most likely to attract the widest audience and thereby to maximize the stations' profits," the staff concluded.
Since October, the FCC has been releasing preliminary reports emanating from its network inquiry, the first major government examination of commercial television programming practices in more than 20 years.
The task force examining network procedures, including their relationships with affiliates, financial conditions and programming restrictions, will present its recommendations to the commission in October.
In addition to the conclusions about the ineffectiveness of the prime time rule, the staff said that the FCC has largely faled to adopt and enforce quickly interpretations of that regulation, as well as the FCC's financial and syndication regulations.
Further, the report said that the Justice Department's antitrust suits against the three major networks -- litigation filed in 1974 that was designed to open up programming distribution, among other things, to more competition -- has failed to alter substantively the broad competitive picture.
The Justice Department has filed proposed consent decrees with NBC and CBS, but the agreements will not be finalized until the litigation with the third network, ABC, is completed.
Even though the controversial prime time rule "has attracted more suppliers into first-run syndicatation," the FCC staff concluded that "it is difficult to characterize the resultant production of game shows and similar fare as comtemplated by the commission's concept of diversity."
The staff said that as a result of the three "dramatic regulatory action, viewers now have part of the evening program schedule selected by stations without guidance, inducement or dictation by networks and more suppliers providing syndicated programs than had been the case" before the FCC moves.