For two decades, Uncle Sam has largely barred the major television networks from the $3 billion-a-year business of producing and syndicating prime-time shows. And for almost that long, ABC, NBC, and CBS, predictably enough, have chafed at the rules.

While the three networks had a stranglehold on TV audiences, those regulations made sense. The Federal Communications Commission's Financial Interest & Syndication rules--known as "Fin-Syn"--barred the networks from owning most prime-time programs they broadcast and from getting a cut from reruns of those shows.

But conditions have changed, and so should the rules. The rise of cable and stronger independent stations has caused the networks' share of the prime-time viewing audience to plummet, from 91% in 1979 to 67% in 1989. Letting the networks into the programming business doesn't pose the same danger it once did, since Hollywood has far more options today. Indeed, abolishing the rules would foster competition in programming.

Until a few weeks ago, it seemed the FCC was willing to phase out the rules, a move backed by Chairman Alfred C. Sikes and the White House. But bitter personal clashes may thwart this effort when the FCC takes up the issue on Apr. 9. A majority of the five-member commission seems to be swayed more by its dislike of Sikes than by the merits of the case. The majority supports a proposal by Commissioner Andrew C. Barrett that would impose a new set of restrictions on the networks. There's no justification for swapping one network straitjacket for an even more confining one. The commissioners should reserve their rivalries for the back room and focus on the benefits to viewers from freeing the networks.

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