WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Friday cleared the way for restoration of rules designed to prevent cable TV systems from showing syndicated programs that local TV stations also might be showing.
The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia could mean that TV viewers will get fewer chances to view some of their favorite syndicated shows starting Jan. 1.
Syndicated shows are those not controlled by a network, but made available by their producers to stations independently. Frequently they are reruns of previous network hits, like "MASH."
The court upheld a 1988 decision by the Federal Communications Commission to reinstate its so-called syndicated exclusivity rules that the agency had lifted in 1980 to help boost the cable TV industry.
The rules allow local over-the-air stations to contract with program suppliers for the exclusive rights in their broadcast areas.
Cable operators retransmit local broadcasters' signals while also "importing" the signals of national "superstations" such as WTBS of Atlanta, New York City's WOR and Chicago's WGN. In some cases that means a cable system will be showing "Green Acres," for instance, from a superstation as well as a local TV station.
Cable operator Steven J. Simmons, chairman of Simmons Communications Inc., said in an interview last month that broadcasters around the country have indicated they will claim exclusivity for "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Wheel of Fortune," "MASH," "I Love Lucy," "Golden Girls," "Donahue," "Who's the Boss?" and other programs.
Broadcasters claim that program duplication reduces their audiences and their advertising revenue while giving broadcasters less incentive to develop syndicated programming.
The appeals court, in an opinion written by Chief Judge Patricia M. Wald, denied challenges to the rules from cable companies and industry organizations that claimed they were arbitrary and violated federal law and cable operators' First Amendment rights.
The petitioners also said the commission had not compiled adequate statistics to back up its decision to bring back the syndication rules.
Wald, in a stinging rejection of the First Amendment argument, said the cable companies were "claiming that they have a First Amendment right to express themselves using the copyrighted materials of others."
She said the FCC "was surely justified in concluding" that duplication of programming "diverts a substantial portion of the broadcast audience to cable."
"The commission reasonably inferred that diversion lessened the value of the programming by lowering advertising revenues," Wald wrote. She noted that cable programmers themselves boast of the exclusive rights they have to certain programs.