Prime Time Access Rule
The Prime Time Access Rule (PTAR) was instituted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1970 to restrict the amount of network broadcast programming that a local television station which is owned and operated by, or affiliated with, a television network may air during "prime time". It was repealed in 1996.
The PTAR was issued in 1970 and was implemented at the beginning of the 1971-72 season (the week of September 13–19, 1971); it was re-examined periodically and underwent several modifications since its initial issue.
The PTAR was instated because of the concern that the three major television networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — dominated the television program production market, controlled much of the television programming presented to the public, and inhibited the development of competing program sources. The FCC believed that PTAR would ultimately increase the level of competition in program production, reduce the networks’ control over their affiliates’ programming decisions, and thereby increase the diversity of programs available to the public. To assure that independent companies would have access, the FCC, at the same time, instituted the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules (commonly known as "fin-syn,") which prohibited networks from owning syndication arms. Existing syndication arms of the networks were forced to be spun off as new companies independent of network management.
Immediately prior to its repeal, the PTAR applied only to network-owned or -affiliated stations in the 50 largest markets. It restricted these stations to airing no more than three hours of network programming during the four-hour prime-time block each evening and established the first hour of prime time (7:00–8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, 6:00–7:00 p.m. Central Standard Time, and so on) as the "prime access hour."
The most recent policy of the PTAR was that stations in the top 50 prime time television markets may not air more than three hours of network programming during the four-hour “prime time” block. Stations had to find original programming to fill during the “prime time” fraction. However, the rule exempted certain types of programming, such as runovers of live sports events, special news, documentary and children’s programming, and certain sports and network programming of a special nature. To comply with PTAR, most local television stations presented at least one syndicated game show between 7 and 8 p.m.; ironically, these were usually additional episodes of existing network daytime game shows (occasionally with a different host), distributed by companies that prior to 1971 had been subsidiaries of the networks (such as former CBS property Viacom and former ABC property Worldvision Enterprises), effectively circumventing the purpose of the rule. Other programming that was often seen in these time slots were revivals of Hee Haw and The Lawrence Welk Show (both shows had been canceled by their respective networks, CBS and ABC, in the spring of 1971, before PTAR took effect).
The loss of the extra hour forced networks to eliminate a significant amount of its programming schedule; this led to an exacerbation of an already-existing trend in television programming known as the "rural purge," where programming that targeted less affluent, rural or older viewers was eliminated.
The PTAR was eliminated effective August 30, 1996, the commission having determined it was "no longer necessary" as a tool to promote independent production or affiliate autonomy. While the major networks have not reclaimed the traditional "access" period in early primetime, this is most likely due to pressure from affiliates to retain control of one of the more profitable parts of their schedules, and not any regulation. Several syndicated shows, such as Entertainment Tonight, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, still air in the "prime access hour" and have earned audiences equal to or greater than network shows. In 2010, Fox was allowed to present World Series games that started around 7:30 p.m. ET, so as to prevent games from running into the 11 p.m. ET hour.
One exception, even with the rule in effect, has been Sunday nights, where the networks often programmed in the 7 p.m. hour instead of the stations themselves. Though this was not allowed in the original version of the rule, a 1975 revision to the rule allowed networks to program the time slot on Sundays, which all of the major networks have done ever since. ABC has programmed America's Funniest Home Videos in the slot for much of the time since 1993 while CBS has aired 60 Minutes in the slot consistently since 1975. NBC has mostly aired Dateline NBC in the slot since 1996, though since regaining NFL broadcasting rights in 2006, during football season the network airs Football Night in America in the slot as a pre-game show to NBC Sunday Night Football.
The slot has been used by the networks to air runover programming from NFL games, since the NFL broadcasting contracts require the games to air in its entirety. (This happened as a result of the Heidi Game in 1968.) While CBS "shifts" its Sunday evening schedule to start after its NFL coverage is over, Fox has always had a different approach.
Until 2004 Fox completely pre-empted its lineup until the last game it owned the rights to had finished, upon which it went to its prime-time lineup "already in progress." Since 2005, Fox has aired The OT presented by Lowe's, a post-game show, in the slot as "filler" time between its NFL coverage and The Simpsons at 8pm, with its length depending on how late the final game ends, since NFL games with a 4:15 p.m. (Eastern) start time almost always end by 8 p.m., even if the game goes into overtime. Before that, the 7 p.m. hour at Fox was seen similar to that of the Friday night death slot on all of the networks, as several shows near the end of their runs such as Malcolm in the Middle, Family Guy, and Futurama would be scheduled to air but ultimately pre-empted by Fox's NFL coverage. This tradition has continued during the off-season, with the most recent examples of shows burned off on Sundays at 7–7:30 being 'Til Death and Sons of Tucson during the spring and summer of 2010.
- Schurz Communications, Incorporated v. Federal Communications Commission and United States of America
- Telecommunications Act of 1996, issued at the same time as PTAR was repealed
- Spivack, Audrey; Palamaras, Kara (July 28, 1995). "FCC Repeals PTAR Rule" (Press release). Federal Communications Commission.