PRIME TIME ACCESS RULE

The Prime Time Access Rule (PTAR) was instituted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to restrict the amount of network programming that local television stations owned by or affiliated with a network may air during the evening. Prime time is normally from 7:00 P.M. to 11:00 P.M. in the Eastern and Pacific time zones, and from 6:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M. in the Central and Mountain time zones.

By the 1960s, the networks' programs dominated prime time schedules of network stations throughout the United States, and reruns of old network shows dominated schedules of independent (non-network) television stations. The FCC began to investigate this virtual monopoly in 1965, and issued its initial PTAR in 1970. The rule has undergone several modifications since, and the FCC reexamines PTAR periodically.

Nationally there are over 200 television markets, metropolitan areas ranked by population. The number one market is New York, followed by Los Angeles, and Chicago. The current PTAR applies only to network owned or network affiliated television stations in the 50 largest markets. The rule restricts these stations from airing more than three hours of network programming during the four hour prime time block each evening and establishes the first hour of prime time as the "access hour." In practice, the networks provide only three hours of programming to affiliates in all 200 plus markets. They do so because they are unable to make a profit selling network time for commercials that would only appear in smaller markets.

The Networks normally provide 22 hours of network programming weekly, three hours Monday through Saturday, and four on Sunday. Sunday includes an extra hour because feature films, news and public affairs, and family programs qualify as exemptions from the rule. There are also exceptions made for fast breaking live news events and runovers of live broadcasts of sports contests. In some local television markets, the half-hour network evening newscast is aired during primetime because this qualifies as another exemption if the local affiliate broadcasts a one hour local newscast immediately preceding the network newscast.

The current PTAR also prevents Top 50 market network owned or affiliated stations from airing off--network programs during the access hour. Off-network programs are old episodes of shows originally broadcast on the network (e.g. The Cosby Show) that are sold as packages to local stations in smaller markets and non-network stations in larger markets. This part of PTAR was enacted originally to encourage more locally produced shows, and to increase opportunities for smaller independent production companies to sell original programs to local stations. Prior to PTAR, almost all network programming was produced by major studios or the networks themselves. In practice, and in spite of the rule, there is very little locally produced access programming, and the major portion of access programs produced by independent producers are inexpensive game shows.

The FCC is examining PTAR again in response to an appeal for eliminating PTAR by the major networks. In recent years, the networks' share of the national primetime audience has shrunk because of many more channel options available to television viewers via cable or satellite. The Prime Time Access Rule will continue to be modified periodically. Whether or not it will be totally eliminated cannot be predicted because of the many other factors affecting television programming and the broadcast industry itself.

-Robert G. Finney

FURTHER READING

Carter, Bill. "FCC Takes Cautious Step To Alter A Prime-Time Rule." New York Times, 7 October 1994.

Freeman, Michael. "The Escalating War Over PTAR." MEDIAWEEK (New York), 14 March 1994.

Jessell, Harry A. "'The Great Debate' on PTAR." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 30 January 1995.

______________. "PTAR Pros And Cons." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 13 March 1995.

McConnell, Chris. "The End is Near (or far) for PTAR." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 17 July 1995.

 

See also Allocation; Federal Communications Commission; License; Syndication