While Fred Thompson's "Law & Order" character disappears from NBC starting Saturday because of concerns over federal equal time provisions, cable viewers will still have plenty of opportunities to see his District Attorney Arthur Branch.
TNT will air 23 episodes of the drama next week alone, apparently unworried about limiting Branch's airplay even as the Tennessee Republican plans to announce his presidential candidacy.
"TNT has no plans to alter its schedule," spokeswoman Shirley Powell said, a stance that could provoke a fight in the courts or before the Federal Communications Commission.
Equal time rules require TV stations to provide the same airtime to opponents when a candidate appears on the air. The many exceptions _ news shows, talk shows, interviews, documentaries _ essentially mean the rules apply to entertainment programming.
Thompson's expected post-Sept. 4 entrance into the race triggered NBC's decision to stop airing "Law & Order" reruns featuring him starting Sept. 1. Next week Thompson will essentially shift time slots on NBC: The "Tonight" show announced said that he will appear as a guest with Jay Leno on Thursday.
The equal time rules were written when cable was in its infancy, and it has never been clear whether or not they apply only to broadcast stations. It would seemingly take a challenge from one of Thompson's opponents to force a clarification.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger first ran for California governor, Sci Fi and FX decided against broadcasting his movies because of equal time worries.
But TNT and its sister station TBS both showed "Terminator" in 2003. "The Last Action Hero," "Conan the Barbarian," "Conan the Destroyer" and "Kindergarten Cop" all aired on one of the Turner networks that year, too.
Powell said the network would not discuss its decision further.
Cable's growth could make it harder for its executives to argue that it should receive different treatment from broadcasters. TNT dramas like "The Closer" and "Saving Grace" this summer had larger audiences than much of what was shown on broadcast networks.
Thompson appeared on "Law & Order" for five seasons, more than 100 episodes. Taking him from the air isn't much of a hardship for NBC; once a new season starts, a network is unlikely to air reruns from previous seasons.
Yet "Law & Order" reruns are a backbone of TNT's schedule, and eliminating some 100 episodes from the rotation would be a serious hardship.
TNT and TBS are owned by Time Warner Inc.