Top of page

Syndication Regulation and TV’s Big Three: Broadcasting Regulations and 1970s Television

Share this post:

The following is a guest post by Kara Craig, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a recent graduate of the master’s in library and information science program at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.

Television broadcasting, from its inception until the 1970s, was dominated by “The Big Three” networks. From creation to production to distribution, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), American Broadcasting Company (ABC), and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) managed many of the facets of the broadcast industry and often owned many of the shows that aired. They also controlled much of the syndication market, creating their own networks (such as CBS’s Viacom) to control syndication of shows they owned, allowing them to “command the profits from the financing and syndication of successful television programs, and to control the distribution of programs throughout the country.” Noticing the growing power of the networks and fearing the vertical integration of the broadcasting industry, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to enact regulations to curtail The Big Three’s control. In 1970, the FCC passed both the Financial Interest Syndication Rules (Fin-Syn) and the Prime Time Access Rule (PTAR). These two rules managed to overhaul the entire production, distribution, and broadcast nature of The Big Three in the 1970s and hoped to increase the power of independent producers and studios while also giving affiliates and independent networks more programming control.

Black and white image of the backs of three people looking at a television set below and multiple televisions and a clock above.
WETA-TV. Warren K. Leffler, photographer. Nov. 25, 1969. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. //

The Fin-Syn and PTAR targeted the networks’ ownership and financial interest in shows, affiliates stations, and reruns, as well as the amount of time used to air their own programming. The Fin-Syn rules prohibited network participation in two related arenas: the financial interest of the television programs they aired beyond first-run exhibition and the creation of in-house syndication arms, especially in the domestic market. PTAR further limited the power networks had over broadcasting, especially over local affiliate stations. Before PTAR, the networks aired much of their own programming across television stations and affiliates during the prime time hours (7:00 pm to 11:00 pm). After PTAR, networks could not air more than three hours of programming owned by them or reruns of shows they owned. They also had to relinquish a half hour from 7:30 pm to 11:00 pm to local affiliate stations to air programming at their own discretion.

Black and white image of Mary Tyler Moore (center) holding a presumed script and two men on either side with glasses.
Image from LOOK – Job 70-5722 titled Mary Tyler Moore. Douglas Jones, photographer. Nov. 24, 1970. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. //

The networks felt these rules were “unfair and did not solve the intended problems,” but the rules were affirmed in Mt. Mansfield Television, Inc.v. F.C.C. (442 F.2d 470, 2d Cir. 1971). As the Fin-Syn and PTAR rules began to be implemented, networks began to relinquish ownership stakes in shows, and they sought out the work of independent production studios and more socially relevant programming. Studios like Tandem Productions, led by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, and MTM Enterprises, led by Mary Tyler Moore and Grant Tinker, were the most successful examples of networks picking up shows from independent production studios. Not only was the popularity of shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, and All In The Family (all on CBS) indicative of the networks’ shift to appeal to more metropolitan and younger viewers and giving way to the rise of the golden era of 1970s television, it was also representative of networks’ operations post Fin-Syn rules and PTAR, as these studios functioned independently (creatively and financially) of the networks.

Black and white image of Jim Henson in dark clothes with beard behind wall holding puppet of Kermit the Frog above.
Image from LOOK – Job 70-5503 titled Sesame Street — tv. Charlotte Brooks, photographer. Mar. 18, 1970. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. //

The television syndication industry was transformed for both first-run (the first airing of a show, either on a network or through affiliates/local stations) and off-network (a.k.a. reruns) shows. Locally produced programs from Soul Train to The Muppets were able to flourish through the first-run syndication era, with local affiliates and independent stations in varying markets purchasing rights to air the programs. Other shows like What’s Happening Now and game shows, were able to find renewed life in this first-run syndication market, as well. This was largely due to affiliate and independent television stations being able to gain control over their own programming decisions and producers not having to rely on the network for distribution.

During the 1980s, the power of The Big Three continued to dwindle with the introduction of cable television subscriptions, a new network (FOX), and the VCR. Although PTAR and the Fin-Syn Rules faced much criticism, were relaxed, and eventually repealed in the 1990s, their effects are still present in the television landscape today. The current network television prime time structure (8:00 pm to 11:00 pm) and the world of syndication are just two examples of how those regulations implemented in the 1970s helped to craft the modern TV landscape.

For more information on television and broadcasting rules from the FCC, look to title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations (1938-1995 available from the Law Library, 1996-present available from GPO).

Subscribe to In Custodia Legis – it’s free! – to receive interesting posts drawn from the Law Library of Congress’s vast collections and our staff’s expertise in U.S., foreign, and international law.

Comments (2)

  1. Interesting post, Kara. Thank you!

  2. I read the article, which by the way was impeccable. It successfully conveyed its intended message, as far as the history Broadcast Communication systems, and the 3 main players that basically monopolize the content of what is being broadcasted. Now I am left with so many questions, as far as, the authority that these 3 main companies have, and if/how it is being used. All, in all, great article. Loved it!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *