03/28/2008 02:45 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

BriWi Bookends, Barack Benefits? The Theoretical Implications of an SNL Rerun

So it looks like the writers' strike is set to be settled, which means that writers could be back at work as soon as this week. In a funny quirk of rerun programming, it also means that the Brian Williams-hosted Saturday Night Live, rerun last night, will have neatly bookended the strike since Williams's show, broadcast on Nov. 3, 2007, was the last live SNL to run before the strike kicked off on Nov. 5, 2007.

It also raises an interesting question about consistent policies at NBC, and I will ever so wonkily tell you why: Barack Obama made a noteworthy cameo at the top of the show, belting out the iconic words, "Live From New York, It's Saturday Night!" Now, remember the kerfuffle about Fred Thompson's Law & Order reruns? NBC announced that they would not show them while Thompson was a candidate for president in order not to violate the FCC's mandate of equal time provisions to presidential candidates on the broadcast nets. The concerns were twofold: First, if competing candidates elected to challenge NBC, the law might well require them to provide equal time; and second, the case could conceivably be made that the reruns constituted an in-kind donation. (Note that neither of these have actually been tested in court.) At the time, I recall thinking that applying this standard was a slippery slope indeed — what about Obama getting a full hour on Oprah? Who monitored talk show appearances for people like McCain, Jon Stewart's most frequent guest on The Daily Show? (At that time, Mike Huckabee had not yet been on every talk show known to man.) And I remember wondering: What if they decide to rerun Rudy Giuliani's SNL appearance? It is an outdated law, does not apply to cable channels, but that isn't even important right now — what's important is that NBC made a decision about reruns featuring presidential candidates back in July, and that decision was not to air them. Last night, they went back on that decision.

Like I said, it's a slippery slope: What about reruns of talk shows? What about reruns of Huckabee's quip du jour (all over cable today, get ready to see his "I didn't major in math, I majored in miracles" punchline). Well, yes — but those examples represent news per se, and while SNL certainly makes and breaks news of its own kind, it has more in common with L&O in that it is entertainment.*

Now, I'm no (practicing) lawyer and have no plans to sue NBC anytime soon, and I have no idea if this contention holds water — actually, given the aforementioned untestedness of it all, pretty much no one does. But I do know that there is a clear analogy between the two, and it did strike me immediately as an inconsistency in NBC's policy. Maybe it was an accident, maybe the person who decides what shows to rerun is secretly a fan of Obama, maybe NBC is just daring Hillary Clinton to write them another angry letter— but either way, based on the decision the network made in July, it's in violation of its own edict. Like I said above, it does sound incredibly wonky, but rules and standards make these things go and fairness is in the details — especially when it was NBC who decided what that standard should be in the first place. If it applies to Fred Thompson, it should apply equally to any other candidate.

A postscript: Back in November, I (equally nerdily) wondered if Williams's hosting of Obama on SNL — particularly in a sketch that mocked his opponent but made him look good — could be perceived as an implicit endorsement. I meant it as a theoretical question and promptly forgot about it, as did the rest of humanity, but it's interesting how that question resurfaces in light of this situation. It might be niggling and hair-splitting and Roberts Rules of Order-ish in the extreme, but I guarantee you that somewhere in America last night, someone complained that NBC was pushing Obama.** In a fraught campaign where even the appearance of bias is enough to send zealous and furiously divided watchers (and blog commenters) into overdrive, it's amazing how every little thing counts. Wow, that's the most Fred Thompson's ever done for this presidential campaign, I think.

Fred Thompson's Presidential Hopes Could Put 'Law' Reruns in Lockup
Law, Order and Reruns [Chicago Tribune]
Barack and BriWi: Forget About Gravitas, What About Bias?

Obama Plays Convincing Obama in a Skit Mocking Clinton
The Saturday Night Live Primary [NYT]
Barack Obama on SNL [BarackObama -YouTube]

*Lasr night's interestingly-timed MSNBC documentary on Hillary Clinton wouldn't count, both because it ran on NBC's cable arm and also because it skews more toward news than entertainment, though there were some funny hairstyles.
**Or, as one might say, "pimping him out."