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Syndication exclusivity (also known as syndex) is a federal law in the United States that is designed to protect a local television station's rights to syndicated television programs by granting exclusive rights to the station for that program in the local market, usually defined by a station's Nielsen Designated Market Area. As a result, any airings of the same program on cable networks and superstations must be blocked by the local cable provider upon request from the local station. Broadcast television stations have the option of signing programming deals with or without syndex protection, but stand to have audiences significantly diluted in markets without protection.
The first syndex law came into effect in the early-1970s. The law at the time was similar to the present-day law, except that it applied to almost all programming, including shows such as the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon. WTBS in Atlanta, Georgia, the original "superstation", had programming blacked out in some areas where duplication existed.
In 1980, the FCC lifted the old syndex law, as a way to bolster the growing cable television industry. This led to cable systems picking up more superstations and more regional out-of-market independent stations, at a time when the popularity of both was growing.
The current syndex law was tied in part to the Satellite Home Viewer Act of 1988. In the run-up to that legislation's passage, Tom Meek of WOFL-TV in Orlando, Florida, with the assistance of Preston Padden of INTV, presented a study utilizing custom Nielsen audience data showing significant ratings dilution in the 7-8 p.m. time period directly attributable to the carriage of identical programming via Chicago superstation WGN-TV on numerous local cable providers, with an estimated loss of several hundred thousand dollars in advertising revenue. The legislation, H.R. 2848, had been blocked by the late representative Mike Synar (D-OK), who represented the district including Tulsa, Oklahoma, where WGN's satellite carrier United Video was headquartered. After the study was presented to and subsequently validated by Synar's staff, Synar dropped his opposition under pressure from committee chairman Rep. Al Swift (D-WA). H.R. 2848, sponsored by Rep. John Bryant (D-TX), then passed.
Before the reimposition of the syndex rules, stations like WGN and WTBS were paying local single market rates for programming, but gaining national coverage, and were selling that extended coverage to advertisers. After syndex, in at least some cases, pricing paid by superstations better reflected their actual national distribution, depending on arrangements with any given syndicator.
There have been a number of legal cases, most notably in Miami, Florida, and efforts in Washington, D.C. by terrestrial broadcasters to keep satellite providers from exploiting a provision in the law where satellite providers can offer programming where a broadcast station's signal is not available. In the Miami case, satellite providers were found to have allowed carriage of outside stations in households within a few miles of broadcast transmitters in violation of the law. Syndex is often unpopular with satellite subscribers and companies who would rather not afford local broadcast stations program rights protection.
Syndex is currently being used to block superstations offered through a programming tier provided by Dish Network from being picked up in certain markets. In this case, the CW and MyNetworkTV affiliates in given markets can invoke the syndex law to keep the superstations affiliated with the same network from coming into the market in any form. CW stations are using the law in order to block KTLA, WPIX and KWGN-TV, while WWOR-TV and WSBK-TV are presently blocked in markets where MyNetworkTV affiliates are invoking the law.
- Syndex also applies to programs seen on stations in Canada and Mexico – in the Buffalo, New York television market, when CFTO-DT or CIII-DT airs a program that is also seen on an American broadcast network, the Canadian broadcast is blacked out, or replaced with the signal of the American station carrying the same program at that time (note that this does not apply to most sports on cable, especially if they are different productions from one another, unless the league for that sport requests a blackout; Buffalo Sabres games carried on CBC Television's Hockey Night in Canada and on MSG Network can be seen on both channels).
- During an October 2008 dispute between LIN TV Corporation and Time Warner Cable, CBS programming (most notably NFL on CBS games, including the Buffalo Bills) were blacked out in the Buffalo market due to LIN and TWC not coming to terms with a new contract. Despite this, WIVB-TV (a LIN-owned station and CBS affiliate) was still allowed to enforce syndex and prevent other CBS affiliates or CFTO from being brought into the market. CFTO was allowed to carry games in Niagara County, WSEE-TV in Chautauqua County, WBNG in Steuben County, and WROC-TV in Orleans, Genesee and Wyoming counties. Time Warner Cable customers in Erie, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties, whose only CBS affiliate is WIVB, were completely blacked out; in the latter two counties, because of terrestrial reception issues, antennas cannot be used, leaving satellite television (which still carried WIVB) as the only choice.
- A similar rule, simultaneous substitution, exists in Canada, allowing broadcasters to require that U.S. feeds of shows airing at exactly the same time on a Canadian network to be replaced with the Canadian feed. This is intended to protect Canadian advertising revenue.
- Sporting events that air on a national network such as ESPN are often blacked out in the markets of teams playing if their local channels also have rights to the game. For example, a weeknight baseball game between the Cubs and Cardinals carried by ESPN would be blacked out in areas that receive either team's local channel. In another case, ESPN's ACC Wednesday is blacked out in markets that receive coverage of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball on local stations via Raycom Sports. In such instances, the ESPN feed is usually replaced with ESPNEWS. A 2012 deal reached between ESPN and Major League Baseball will virtually eliminate local blackouts during the network's Monday and Wednesday night games, allowing ESPN coverage to co-exist with the local broadcaster's in-home markets beginning in 2014.
- The NFL has a Syndex policy regarding Thursday Night (NFL Network) and Monday Night (ESPN) games. Each team's home (if sold out) and road games scheduled for either cable channel is sold annually in a syndicated package for a local over-the-air broadcaster to purchase. As a result of such, in the home markets of both teams, the respective cable network is blacked out to protect the local broadcaster with syndicated rights to that team's Thursday and Monday games.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, several local independent stations were uplinked via satellite so that they could be available either nationally or regionally. Three of those stations, WOR-TV/WWOR-TV in New York City (later moved to Secaucus, New Jersey), WGN-TV in Chicago, and WTBS in Atlanta were available nationally. WTBS aired shows that were generally "syndex proof" (or, in simpler terms, having "full signal rights") due to program contracts that the station was able to negotiate so that they would avoid having any programs covered up, save for sports programs.
In 1990, when the syndex law was passed, national versions of WWOR-TV and WGN-TV, which aired different programs from the local signals in their native cities, were launched. These feeds replaced programs that had syndication exclusivity claims in certain markets with syndicated programs that no station held exclusive rights to in any market. WWOR's national feed outside of New York City was branded as the "WWOR EMI Service." WGN-TV did not have to cover up as many programs as WWOR did, and while WGN was able to carry The WB on its national feed from January 1995 to October 1999, WWOR was not permitted by UPN to carry their programming on the EMI feed (this was a malady for UPN as WGN's carriage of The WB temporarily filled holes where that network did not have a full-time or secondary carrier in a given market until the network found local over-the-air affiliates and later set up a cable-only feed in 1998, whereas UPN's denial of WWOR carrying the network's programming left open affiliate gaps).
After the national version of WWOR ceased uplinking in January 1997 (after Advance Entertainment Corporation sold WWOR's satellite transponder slot to Discovery Communications to expand national coverage of Animal Planet), the native feed, which included UPN programs and other shows previously covered up on the EMI feed, was uplinked by National Programming Service with carriage limited to satellite providers (that feed was discontinued in 1999, though Dish Network now carries the New York City feed of WWOR). WTBS was eventually separated from the national feed of TBS, and now airs only Atlanta-cleared programming as WPCH. WGN's national superstation feed, later branded as "WGN Superstation" and "Superstation WGN", would be renamed WGN America in 2007; by this point, the number of syndicated programs that WGN-TV both gained full signal rights to and aired on both the Chicago broadcast signal and the national feed had substantially decreased, with WGN America now mirroring the former WWOR EMI Service in its scheduling.
Syndex-free/full signal rights
In any case, national superstations such as WGN can, in the present day, still sometimes negotiate full signal rights for a syndicated program. Whether or not a particular program can be cleared for full signal rights depends on how it was originally sold to other stations nationwide. For example, the repackaged American Idol Rewind was allowed to air on WGN's national "Superstation" signal by virtue of Tribune Entertainment (the now-defunct production and distribution unit of the station's owner, the Tribune Company) being a majority partner as well as the program distributor.
Other studios can also allow full signal rights to superstations for its programming. For example, 20th Television allowed WGN full signal rights to the syndicated version of 24, and Sony Pictures Television the same method for Seinfeld for TBS.
However, once one superstation's term of license on a program ends, it can enter into syndex restrictions. For example, for decades TBS had full signal rights to The Andy Griffith Show until Viacom's networks were able to negotiate new full signal rights in the mid-1990s (The Andy Griffith Show at the time was distributed by Viacom, then its successor, Paramount Television). Today, TV Land has national rights to The Andy Griffith Show (now distributed through CBS Paramount Television), and under this new contract cannot be seen on any other national network or superstation, but it can still be seen on local over-the-air stations, as stations such as Raleigh's WRAL/WRAZ and WVTV in Milwaukee have done for decades. Broadcasts on these local stations is only restricted to their particular markets.
- Simultaneous substitution – Canadian technique of placing a Canadian signal over the American signal on cable and satellite
- Blackout (broadcasting) – for blackouts of sporting events