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The New Season: Equal time, Dick Wolf style

July 17, 2007 |  6:30 pm


Dick Wolf apparently interrupted today’s “Law & Order” panel during the TCA press tour to deliver three carefully crafted statements from NBC’s legal department about how the network plans to handle the equal-time implications of Fred Thompson’s potential Republican presidential candidacy.

We say "apparently," because this New York-based correspondent was not on hand to witness the delivery in person, and a transcript of the session said simply, “Wolf reads statements.” (According to a source, that is. Only those who sit through the long sessions of the Television Critics Assn. gathering at the Beverly Hills Hilton are entitled to peruse the transcripts of said sessions. And the powers that be follow that decree zealously.)   

A helpful NBC publicist provided a copy of the statements, which confirmed what we already knew: If Thompson formally announces his candidacy, NBC is not going to run any more repeats of “Law & Order” in which the former Tennessee senator appears. At least not after Sept. 1, when NBC plans to reair the last episode featuring Thompson’s character, Dist. Atty. Arthur Branch, who is being succeeded next season by his Eliot Spitzer-like deputy, Jack McCoy.

The reason: federal equal-time provisions, which state that broadcasters who give political candidates air time -– even in the form of entertainment programs -- open themselves up to requests from other candidates for an equivalent platform.

Thompson’s delay in announcing whether he’s really in the race has helped NBC largely duck the issue this season. If he had jumped in at the beginning of the year, the network would have faced the prospect of pulling “Law & Order” off the air, or at least excising his appearances -- unless they wanted to give nine Republican presidential hopefuls free air time.

The situation remains more complicated for the cable networks that rely on near-ubiquitous “Law & Order” repeats to fill their schedules. NBC said Wednesday that “the equal time requirement does not apply to programming on national cable networks.”

Um, it’s not quite that clear-cut. Here’s how this newspaper explained the issue back in May: Federal Communications Commission rules written in the 1970s, before the explosion of cable channels, require cable operators to provide equal time to opponents of candidates featured on original programs but don't address the role of cable networks. Since the FCC has never ruled on such a complaint, the industry has few guidelines to draw from.

That’s why NBC officials say privately that they may voluntarily yank from their cable networks the 11 episodes of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and the two episodes of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" that feature Thompson's character. (USA runs repeats of both series and Bravo reairs “Criminal Intent.”)

They would also refrain from distributing those episodes when the shows go into broadcast syndication this fall.

TNT faces a more difficult dilemma. The Turner cable network runs as many as eight episodes of the original “Law & Order” a day, and pulling them off the air could gut its schedule. Network officials are still pondering how to handle the matter. Today, a spokeswoman said that “TNT has no plans to alter its programming schedule at this time.”

-- Matea Gold