'Law & Order' Episodes With Fred Thompson to End
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Even though Fred Thompson is still testing the waters, he's already quit his old job as the gruff but folksy district attorney Arthur Branch on the TV series, "Law & Order."
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Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Actor; Former Republican Senator, Tennessee): (As Arthur Branch) This guy Kraslow(ph) is a poster boy for the death penalty. I want him charged with everything, including the murders.
MONTAGNE: NBC says it will stop airing reruns of "Law & Order," featuring Thompson if the former senator makes his White House bid official.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY: This isn't the first time an actor's political ambition has altered the television schedule. "Bedtime for Bonzo" went night-night when Ronald Reagan ran for office. And Arnold Schwarzenegger's movies were temporarily terminated while he campaigned to be California's governor. Otherwise, TV stations that aired the movies might have been forced by FCC rules to give equal time to every other candidate.
Still, Reagan and Schwarzenegger never filled the airwaves like the "Law & Order" franchise where Fred Thompson's held court for the last five years.
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HORSLEY: Thompson appears in more than 100 episodes of "Law & Order." TV editor Michael Schneider of the trade journal Variety said the show is a mainstay of both network and cable schedules, filling more than 25 hours of airtime every week.
Mr. MICHAEL SCHNEIDER (Editor, Variety): It's huge. The show's been on for 18 years so there are a lot of episodes out there. And several cable networks through the years have been able to sort of build up their brand on the strength of these episodes, which continue to, you know, repeat pretty well.
HORSLEY: "Law & Order" and its spin-offs reportedly generate more than a billion dollars a year in ad sales and syndication fees for NBC Universal. Studio spokesman Joe Slasher(ph) says, when it comes to the equal-time rule, there are two separate yet equally important considerations - the broadcast stations that originally air the episodes and the cable networks that rerun them.
Mr. JOE SLASHER (Spokesman, NBC Universal): If Fred Thompson formally announces his intention to run for president, NBC will not schedule any further repeats of "Law & Order" featuring Mr. Thompson beyond those already scheduled, which conclude on Saturday, September 1st.
HORSLEY: A campaign adviser suggests Thompson is holding off his official launch until after that last episode is broadcast, mindful of the paychecks of everyone involved with the show. "Law & Order" reruns are scheduled to keep airing on the TNT cable network. Slasher argues that cable isn't bound by the same FCC rules.
Mr. SLASHER: The equal-time requirement does not apply to programming on national cable networks including cable runs of the "Law & Order" programs.
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HORSLEY: That might seem like the last word, but former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson, who now teaches communications law at the University of Iowa, says watch out for a plot twist.
Prof. NICHOLAS JOHNSON (Communications Law, University of Iowa; Former FCC Commissioner): I think there is room for ambiguity there, and that's what lawyers get paid for.
HORSLEY: Although the FCC has never ruled on an equal-time complaint involving a cable network, Johnson says lawyers could make the case that the same rule should apply. So far, none of Thompson's Republican rivals has made that argument. Indeed, it might be awkward for a Republican to seek such increased government regulation.
Some have argued that the equal-time rule is outdated even for broadcast television since competitors now have so many other channels to get their message across. All this fuss over an entertainment program might seem silly than a high stake's presidential contest, but Johnson says the whole point of the equal-time rule is that television exposure matters. He says Thompson's own campaign is exhibit A.
Prof. JOHNSON: How else do you account for the fact that you take a guy like this and there's talk about his maybe entering the race and suddenly he's in the top tier of candidates?
HORSLEY: Thompson will be replaced as D.A. in the new season of "Law & Order" by actor Sam Waterston. He's been a big contributor to the Democrats.
Scott Horsley, NPR News.