Battle for TV's oldies-but-goodies heats up under deregulation

Three men - as Rich Frank sees it - have control over which programs play on network television and which don't. And if Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations that keep the networks from controlling syndication of TV shows are rolled back, Mr. Frank says, those three men - the heads of NBC, ABC, and CBS - will control virtually all of television programming, including what appears on independent stations.

Mr. Frank is president of Paramount Studios' television group, which produces , among others, a top-grossing syndicated show, ''Laverne and Shirley.'' His opinions reflect those of the community of TV producers and independent TV stations generally.

The concern of the Hollywood creative community is that if networks are allowed to negotiate for syndication rights, they will have the upper hand in obtaining them. That's because there's fierce competition among production companies to sell their shows to the networks. In such a buyers' market, networks could demand syndication rights. And once a network controls a show's syndication, it is unlikely to let an independent station use that program to compete with a network affiliate.

The networks are the shackled giants in this controversy over whether or not to loosen the FCC rules that bind them. What some entertainment industry observers note is that the networks are weakened giants these days - giants that may not all survive competition from cable television, direct-broadcast satellites, and home videocassette players.

So some industry watchers, including FCC chairman Mark Fowler, say they think it is time to take the shackles off and let the networks buy into program production and negotiate for syndication rights.

The Hollywood creative community doesn't see the networks as such fragile giants. ''They're just looking for a windfall,'' says Rich Frank.

From the point of view of a studio like Mr. Frank's, competition does not yet present a significant threat to the networks. CBS, NBC, and ABC are still the big markets for selling programs. Using New York City as an example, Frank compares network control of the airwaves to having one person control the Holland Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel, and the George Washington Bridge.

Networks, for their part, don't feel their free-to-the-viewer broadcasts should be shackled with restrictions that don't apply to their pay-TV counterparts.

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