f Fred Dalton Thompson decides to run for president, as he has hinted(including a wink and a nod to Jay Leno last week), the "Law & Order" co-star will wreak havoc on the prime-time schedules of TNT, USA and, less seriously, NBC.
The Federal Communications Commission requires that broadcasters provide equal time to all candidates. If Mr. Thompson, who turns 65 in August, officially joins the race for the Republican nomination, networks carrying any of the actor-politician's entertainment programs will have to either fork over equal time to the 10 other Republican contenders or take Mr. Thompson's shows off the air. Democrats need not apply for equal time with Mr. Thompson, unless he wins the nomination.
The politician-turned-actor-turned-politician ended his membership in the "L&O" cast this spring. Sam Waterston's Jack McCoy is rumored to be in line for a promotion.
The former U.S. senator from Tennessee (1994-2003) joined "Law & Order" in 2002 as District Attorney Arthur Branch, a New York politician with a drawling Southern accent. He also pops up in various "L&O" spinoffs and has a string of films to his credit, including "In the Line of Fire," "Days of Thunder" and "The Hunt for Red October."
A quick survey of the TV schedule reveals about 25 hours of "Law & Order" reruns airing this week on TNT alone. That doesn't count frequent marathons on the weekends. USA carries even more hours of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," which features Mr. Thompson's character more often than not, and Bravo runs seven hours of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" on Sundays.
Mr. Thompson appears in more than 100 episodes of the "L&O" series and its spinoffs, although usually in relatively brief one- to three-minute segments. However, the scenes can be pivotal, with the D.A. grousing orders to his prosecutors and tossing out sage, countrified one-liners.
Mr. Thompson formed an exploratory committee to advise him on a run for the White House. He has not yet formally declared his candidacy, however. NBC/Universal Television, which owns the syndication rights to the "L&O" franchise, finds itself in an awkward holding pattern with more questions than answers.
If Mr. Thompson runs, will the reruns be blacked out entirely? If so, what will fill those enormous holes on TNT and USA? Will creator Dick Wolf find a clever way to edit Arthur Branch out of each story? Will NBC and the cable networks that air "L&O" reruns offer other candidates one- to three-minute spots every time a Thompson episode airs in order to keep the shows intact?
When Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger entered politics, TV networks took their movies out of circulation to avoid the equal-time hassles.
Mr. Reagan's "Bedtime for Bonzo" was banished, and Mr. Schwarzenegger's "Terminator" films were pulled. But those films didn't gobble up entire nights of a cable network's prime-time schedule.
Mr. Thompson's murky situation with "L&O" is made murkier by the fact that the FCC's equal-time rule has never been applied to reruns on cable. The rule does apply to cable networks in general, but it refers to "origination programming by cable systems," making no mention of reruns. That's probably because the rule came about in 1972, before cable networks proliferated and began spewing out broadcast network reruns.
Mr. Wolf, who rarely declines a request for an interview, doesn't want to talk about what will happen until Mr. Thompson becomes an official candidate. An NBC spokesman said it is "premature to speculate at this point." Although people at the FCC are happy to provide basic information on the hypothetical equal-time conundrum, nobody wants to go on the record.
The FCC tends to react rather than act, so it's unlikely the commissioners will rule unless a formal request for equal time is made by another candidate. To avoid a precedent-setting ruling, it's likely that the cable networks involved with the "L&O" episodes will simply snip out the scenes with District Attorney Branch.
Pulling the programs entirely would be devastating to the networks.
"TNT is really in uncharted territory here," says Gary Belis, vice president of communications for the Television Bureau of Advertising.
"This is a major block of their programming, so they've got to be scrambling. Certainly there would be an economic impact because you've got to deliver the ratings you promised your advertiser, and these shows do well. Maybe the lesson to be learned here is don't put all our eggs in one basket."
The role of the conservative, crime-fighting D.A. fits perfectly with Mr. Thompson's personal political persona, so his "L&O" stint — even just viewers' memory of it — could be a plus for his presidential campaign. In movies and TV, he tends to be cast as politicians, military men and sheriffs. Maybe it's his towering height and Southern drawl.
But you've got to wonder how the situation would play out if Mr. Thompson's 100 hours of TV time had been spent playing a murderer, cross-dresser or stupid sitcom dad. The actor might have been begging the networks to remove his work (or his image might not have been very presidential to begin with), and the other contenders might have been happy to keep him on the air.
Networks, candidates and stars are keeping a close eye on the Thompson case. Hollywood and Washington frequently cross paths, and not just for fundraising and influence-peddling. Rumors of potential star candidates waft through the air every four years. Warren Beatty has been mentioned as a presidential contender numerous times, along with Martin Sheen (who played a president on TV in "The West Wing"), Alan Alda ("M*A*S*H" star and "West Wing" presidential candidate) and George Clooney.
Although the "Law & Order" crisis won't bloom fully until Mr. Thompson announces his candidacy — which could be today, tomorrow or (as currently rumored) the Fourth of July — the affected TV networks might be trolling their archives right now in search of different programming.
If we wind up with night after night of "Matlock" reruns on TNT, we'll know whom to blame.