According to press reports, the Obama campaign is contemplating an ad schedule during the upcoming Summer Olympics. This raises the question of what political broadcasting rules would apply to such a buy. The Olympics run from August 8 through 24, before the lowest unit rate window for political candidates. Thus, the Obama campaign is not entitled to lowest unit rates. Instead, the candidate would only be entitled to a "comparable rate" to what a commercial advertiser in a similar situation would receive. The campaign would not get frequency discounts that a big Olympics sponsor might get, unless the campaign bought in the same frequency, or other discounts that may apply to larger advertisers. But the reasonable access provisions of the rules do apply once you have a legally qualified candidate, so it would seem as if at least some political ads would have to be placed in the Olympic programming. In various political seminars held throughout the country, when this question has been raised, the FCC representatives have consistently said that, given the fact that the Olympics run for such a long period, at least some access must be made available to Federal candidates who are willing to pay the price that the airtime commands.
During the Super Bowl, the Obama campaign bought time, but it was purchased on local stations, not on the network itself (see our post here). Affiliates of NBC would also have reasonable access issues of their own, were the Obama campaign to approach them directly, or were some local Federal candidate to request time on their stations. As these stations have less inventory during the Olympics than does the network, the amount of time that would have to be provided would be less (and a candidate need not be given access to the exact time spot that they might request – not everyone can get the coveted spots in certain high profile event’s finals – as long as the access that they are given is reasonable under the circumstances). But the access rules would apply -so at least some access would have to be given. Note that in a few states with late primaries for Congress and the Senate, it is possible that there would be Federal candidates entitled to lowest unit rates, even during the Olympics. State and local candidates, however, have no right of access, so stations would not have to sell them time in the Olympics.
It is interesting to note that Senator Obama will not officially be the Democratic candidate during the Olympics, as the Democratic Convention will not occur until immediately after the Olympics conclude. Certainly, the primaries are over. Is Obama really a legally qualified candidate before the Convention? Seemingly, at that point, he is still a candidate for the nomination and, having made a"substantially showing" that he is a candidate in 10 states, under FCC rules he would be qualified in all states. So, whether as a candidate for the nomination or for the general election, it would seem that the reasonable access rules would apply. So we may well have a Little politics with our sports this summer – rather than having one following on the heels of the other.
For more on the law of Political Broadcasting, check out our Political Broadcasting Guide.