How the FCC Made Star Trek Possible

Today marks the 40th Anniversary of Star Trek, now referred to as Star Trek: The Original Series (or just ST:TOS). I make no secret of my love for ST:TOS, and credit it with (among other things) imbuing me with a sense of idealism and optimism against the odds. But few realize how FCC regulation of broadcasting made the creation and syndication of Star Trek possible — and why deregulation has made it so much harder for something like Star Trek to hapen today.

Back in the old days, folks used to worry that giving a few giant media companies control over all radio and television programming might cause some real problems for Democracy and stuff. See, back then, people did not understand that anything the private sector des is automatically better than anything the government does. So, isnce the three main networks had a lot of market power to control what got on the air, the FCC had rules to keep the networks from abusing their power.

Specifically, the FCC had something called the “syndication and financial interest” rules. These said that networks couldn’t actually own the programming they ran. That meant the networks had to hire independent production companies to get television shows.

Sure, it was still hard to get your stuff out there. Lots and lots of independents competed to get on the very few places the networks had for TV shows, so the networks had a lot of power about who got on and what people wrote in their shows. But the Fin-Syn rules did create the chance for independents to put out new shows and keep some control of their stuff. So when a guy named “Gene Rodenberry” had an idea, he had a number of independent production companies to go to in the hopes of getting it made. In particular, a company called Desilu, which existed because the network could not own “I Love Lucy,” so Lucile Ball and Desi Arnes had their own production company.

Another thing that helped Star Trek after it got cancelled was the “PTAR” (Prime Time Access Rule). This rule required networks to give up an hour of prime time (usually 7-8 pm by choice) back to affiliates, so that affiliates would show independent programming not distributed by the network. A lot of television shows got launched in that time slot — game shows like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune for example. But it also helped Star Trek find a home in syndication after cancellation.

The final thing the FCC did was authorize a new television service — the Ultrahigh Frequency (UHF) Television on channels 14-68. That created a lot of new outlets in the 1970s that needed programming, couldn’t get a network affiliation (because there already was one) and didn’t have the money to make their own or pay for premium new stuff. But they could buy Star Trek (along with “Bewitched,” “Bonanza,” and a host of other shows).

So not only did the FCC rules give Star Trek (and other independent shows) a chance to get made, they helped provide a home in syndication when it got cancelled.

Of course, the world is changed now. In the 1990s, the FCC and Congress decided we had plenty of competition from cable and we didn’t need regulations like Fin-Syn or PTAR to protect the market. And we certantly didn’t need to authorize new broadcast services to create more outlets. We should let the market do its neat-o efficient market thing without heavy handed regulation. So in 1995, the FCC repealed the Fin-Syn and PTAR rules. (Happily, after Babylon 5 got started.)

So the networks consolidated with the studios and other production companies, and squeezed out the independents. A handful of comapnies buoght up all the outlets, so they just “repurpose” the same stuff over and over again (which is why, for example, you can always find Buffy and MASH reruns on FX, but have a hard time finding them on stations or networks News Corp. (aka 20th Century Fox) doesn’t own).

So it seems unlikely we’ll see another Star Trek again, because apparently that’s not what the ever-efficient market gives us. And it would take bad, bad regulation to create opportunities for a show like Star Trek again.

But, even though I know it’s wrong to think in today’s America that government regulation ever did anything good, I’m glad those rules existed forty years ago. Cause I really like Star Trek. Of course, I wouldn’t miss it if it hadn’t been made, just like I’m not missing all the independent programming we haven’t made since we repealed the old rules. But it did get made, in a time when we believed that the market wasn’t always perfect and that government might have a useful role in creating opportunities for competition and different views.

Stay tuned . . . .

One Comment

  1. Harold,

    Excellent points, as usual.

    And here I’ll get all sentimental and point out that Wetmechanics John & Harold met when sitting on some panel having to do with teh internets and media control, or similar, at Arisia, the great SF Convention held every year in Boston. I believe it was Arisia 2000(?)

    Those of you out there who’ve never been to an SF Con, incidentally, really should check ’em out. There’s probably one going on somewhere near you right now. In addition to all the glorious tacky costumes and silly (fun) role playing, you find lots of discussions of topics like the ones Harold writes of here and elsewhere in his TotSF.

    Live long and prosper, y’all.

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