The FCC Equal Time rule (or more properly the "equal opportunities" doctrine) requires that, when a broadcast stations gives one candidate airtime outside of an "exempt program" (essentially news or news interview programs, see our explanation here), it must give the opposing candidate equal time if that opposing candidate requests the time within 7 days of the first candidate's use. Cable systems are also subject the requirement for local origination programming, and many have surmised that, faced with the proper case, the FCC would determine that cable networks are also likely to be covered by the doctrine. While the FCC has extended the concept of an exempt program to cover all sorts of interview format programs, allowing Oprah, The View, Leno and Letterman and the Daily Show to have candidates on the air without the fear of equal time obligations, the rule still theoretically applies to scripted programming. Yet in this election, we have seen candidates appear on scripted programs repeatedly, seemingly without fear of the equal time obligations. Early in the election season, cable networks ran Law and Order with Fred Thompson without any equal time claims being made. All through the election, candidates seem to have made themselves at home on Saturday Night Live, culminating with Senator McCain's appearances on the SNL programs on Saturday Night and the SNL special run on election eve. Yet through it all, stations have not seemed reluctant to run these programs, and candidates have not seemed to show any interest in requesting any equal time that may be due to them. This seems to raise the question as to whether there remains any vitality to the equal opportunities doctrine.
This is not just a case of candidates deciding not to appear on a program that they don't like because they don't want to appear in a program with that particular format, as the equal time rules free the candidates from format restrictions. Thus, had Senator Obama sought equal time for McCain's appearances on SNL, he would have been entitled to an amount of time equal to the amount of time that McCain appeared on camera, and Obama could have used that time for any purpose that he wanted, including a straight campaign pitch. He would not have had to appear in an SNL skit just to get that time.
So why didn't Senator Obama claim the time? Probably because he didn't want to be seen as a spoil sport. Obviously, if he had claimed equal time, SNL would never again put a candidate into a skit. So who wants to be blamed for ruining all the fun? Besides, Senator Obama seems to have found many other ways to appear on TV.
What is more surprising, however, is why no third party candidates have requested equal time rights. These rights extend not only to the major party candidates, but also to third parties. Thus, Ralph Nader, Bob Barr and the host of other Presidential candidates could have requested equal time on any station that ran SNL in a state in which that candidate was a legally qualified candidate, i.e. where they were on the ballot or conducting a bona fide write-in campaign. Yet none requested such time, and stations and networks have not appeared to be concerned about such claims. Perhaps stations make the calculation that, even if they have to give up a couple of minutes of late night time, the publicity value of the candidate's appearance is worthwhile (after all, the Sarah Palin appearance on SNL was the highest rated SNL show of the year, and McCain's appearance was also highly rated. Why not risk having to give Bob Barr a few minutes when the program with the candidate can garner such ratings?
Alternatively, there may be a more serious issue afoot. From time to time, various broadcast observers have speculated that, if the FCC's political time rules were ever subject to a court challenge on First Amendment grounds, they would not survive. While it looks like we have survived another election without the issue being addressed, watch future elections when the issue may finally come to the fore.