Out of fear that networks' economic muscle would undermine local control of stations, Congress ordered the FCC to set rules for affiliate relations in 1941. The "chain broadcasting" rules have been modified over the years. Here's where they stand today:
- Right to reject: Allows affiliates to refuse specific network programs.
- Time options: Prohibits networks from holding options on affiliates' time without committing to provide programming.
- Exclusive affiliation ban: Networks cannot bar affiliates from airing programming provided by other sources.
- Territorial exclusivity ban: An affiliate cannot forbid local competitors from broadcasting network programming that the affiliate declines to air.
- Dual network rule: The Big Four nets are barred from buying each other. They are allowed to start new networks and buy ones launched after 1996 (Pax TV, for instance). The FCC has proposed letting them acquire The WB or UPN. In fact, the agency granted CBS a waiver to buy UPN.
Many network rules have fallen by the wayside. In 1993, a federal court struck down the financial interest and syndication rules barring networks from owning their programming. In 1995, the FCC eliminated rules that barred nets from owning stations in small markets and from forming "secondary affiliations" with already affiliated stations, if an unaffiliated station remained in a market.
A rule blocking affiliates from airing more than three hours of network programming during prime time was dropped. Proposals to relax the right to reject, time option, exclusive affiliation and exclusivity rules have been pending for six years.