In odd numbered years like 2015, most broadcast stations don’t think about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules. But they should – and we have been receiving many calls from clients about the perhaps surprising number of elections that are taking place this year. These include many races for state and local political offices, everything from school boards and city council to state legislative positions, plus the odd special election to fill vacancies in Congress or some other office. As we have written before, most of the political rules apply to these state and local electoral races as well as to the few Federal elections that are taking place to fill open Congressional seats.
Candidates for state and local elections are entitled to virtually all of the political broadcasting rights of Federal candidates – with one exception, the right of reasonable access which is reserved solely for Federal candidates. That means that only Federal candidates have the right to demand access to all classes and dayparts of advertising time that a broadcast station has to sell. As we wrote in our summary of reasonable access, here, that does not mean that candidates can demand as much time as they want, only that stations must sell them a reasonable amount of advertising during the various classes of advertising time sold on the station. For state and local candidates, on the other hand, stations don’t need to sell the candidates any advertising time at all. But, once they decide to sell advertising time to one candidate in a state or local race, almost all of the other political rules apply.
So that means that if a broadcast station decides to sell advertising time to one candidate in a state or local political race, they must sell it to all candidates for the same race – and be prepared to make available to competing candidates equal amounts of time in equivalent time periods. And, if the time is sold during the 45 days before a primary, or the 60 days before the general election, the time must be sold to the candidate at lowest unit rates. See our summaries of the rules relating to equal time here, and to lowest unit charges here and here.
Similarly, if a station air personality decides to run for state and local office (anything from the school board or local planning commission to governor or state legislature), the station needs to consider whether to take that personality off the air, or risk having to provide equal time to all competing applicants – for free, in amounts equivalent to the amount of time that the employee-candidate appeared on the air, even if the employee never mentions his or her candidacy at all. See our article about this choice here. It is important to remember that the equal time rule applies as soon as a candidate is legally qualified – not just during the window for lowest unit rates – so if a station employee has filed the papers for a place on the ballot, you need to be considering these issues now.
For more on these and other political issues, see our Political Broadcasting Guide, here.