TWO ENORMOUS swaths of people are likely to suffer if Fred Thompson decides to run for president: current candidates for the Republican nomination and actors on "Law & Order." The equal-time rule (Section 315 of the Communications Act) calls for comparable TV time for all candidates, which means -- as it did during Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaigns, when California stations couldn't run "The Terminator," and Ronald Reagan's campaigns, when they couldn't run whatever movies Reagan was in -- that Thompson's five years' worth of "Law & Order" episodes could get pulled from syndication. Which means that I too will suffer, because my mom will have seven to 10 more hours each week to call me.
Almost as awful is the fate that would befall Elisabeth Rohm, who co-starred on "L&O" for four years -- three with Thompson -- playing what I'm guessing was a tough-talking prosecutor. Though Rohm's film career is starting to take off, 25% of her salary comes from residuals from the show, which can appear on TNT up to five times a day. She's already thinking of cutting back on "shoes and dogs."
But she's also wondering if the law really needs to be applied to cable reruns. "Now that there are 100 stations, it doesn't seem like being on a show has the same influence. But of course I'm biased since I'd have to give up my Porsche and finally do the ethical thing and get a Prius."
She says Thompson, who once worked at the law firm where her dad is now a partner, is smart, indefatigable, open-minded and a pretty moderate Republican. "I do think he would make a great president. I do. The problem is, I'm not going to vote for him," she said. But if he wins, she's willing to put her party leanings aside and get involved: "I've been wanting to step into the role I've always been meant to have: ambassador to Holland."
Joe Pantoliano, who has appeared in films with Thompson, has similar problems. "The idea that they wouldn't be able to run 'Baby's Day Out' during this period is another patriotic service that Fred would be providing to the country," he said. "But if it meant they couldn't run 'Racing Stripes,' then that would definitely be a financial blow to this family, and we'd have to move into the Lincoln bedroom for the duration of his term."
During the shooting of "Baby's Day Out," Thompson was multi-tasking by running for the Senate, and Pantoliano proudly wore a Thompson button. But it's easy for a beret-wearing actor to support someone for senator of Tennessee, considering the only other option is someone else from Tennessee. For the presidency, Pantoliano, who is co-president of the Creative Coalition, a nonpartisan advocacy group, is more cautious. "I'm anxious to see Fred in the arena, though I'm not ready to endorse anyone at this time," he said. A Joey Pants endorsement has decided more than one Creative Coalition Logo Improvement Committee meeting.
NBC, which syndicates the show, hasn't yet agreed to pull the "Law & Order" reruns because the courts haven't explicitly said that cable TV is subject to the equal-time rule. But the decision is fraught, and not just because I can't stand to see another actress in a Prius. It's because, unlike Reagan or Schwarzenegger, who took on different characters in films, Thompson frequently plays a scowly, conservative politician who's brilliant and incorruptible. That's a pretty perfect campaign ad for a scowly conservative politician.
Still, equal time is a weird law. You can be in all the movies you want to (as long as they stay in theaters), cram stores with books or DVDs or make YouTube videos, and that's all OK because you aren't appearing over the public airwaves the FCC likes to believe we still get our TV signals through. And the equal-time rule doesn't apply, oddly, to TV ads. Or news shows. Otherwise Barbara Walters would have to sit down with Mike Gravel, though it would be the first time her lazy perma-question -- "Who, really, is Mike Gravel?" -- would actually make sense.
So the rule really applies just to TV shows, which means we all should be working hard to get Jim Belushi on the ballot. And with reruns, it's too late: They've already had their effect. Thompson's district attorney character on "Law & Order" is part of our public consciousness. And it's not as though 18 more months of TNT reruns are going to create even one new "Law & Order" fan. In fact, over the next 18 months, statistically, about half of them will die.
FCC laws all give a false impression that television is uniquely powerful. After all, is being on "Law & Order" more of an advantage to a campaign than serving in the Senate? I never thought I'd advocate keeping "Law & Order" reruns on cable, but I am. Because it's fair. And because, if NBC won't back down, equal-time rules might necessitate Rudy Giuliani being cast as the regional sales manager on "The Office."