The FCC yesterday issued a Declaratory Ruling at the request of the producers of a new syndicated Crime Watch Daily TV show, a program that will give a daily rundown of crime stories including ongoing court trials from around the nation, declaring that the program would not give rise to equal opportunities claims from political candidates. As the producers expected that political candidates would be featured in the program’s daily coverage of crime news (e.g. sheriffs or district attorneys who may be running for reelection in local elections), they wanted to be sure that competing candidates would not have grounds to request equal time from stations carrying the program – which obviously would severely limit the attractiveness of the program. The FCC looked at the description of the nature of the program – where the producer is making editorial decisions about who will appear on the program based on determinations of newsworthiness in the exercise of their journalistic judgment, not based on an attempt to favor or highlight any political candidate. Based on these representations, the FCC concluded that the show was exempt from the equal opportunities obligations of Section 315(a) of the Communications Act.
We have written about the equal opportunities rules (or what many refer to as “equal time”) many times before (see, for instance, our article here). When a candidate makes a “use” of a broadcast station, opposing candidates are entitled to equal time on the station, if they request that equal time within 7 days. If the first candidate did not pay for that airtime, the second candidate gets the time for free. So, if an on-air employee of a station decides to run for public office, once that employee becomes a legally qualified candidate by filing the necessary paperwork for a place on the ballot or taking the steps to launch a write-in campaign, if the employee stays on the air, opposing candidates can request, and are entitled to, equal time on the station. And these opposing candidates don’t need to deliver the weather report or introduce the next song as the on-air employee may have been doing. Instead, the opposing candidates can use the time to promote their campaign, even if the on-air employee never mentioned his or her candidacy on the air (see our article on on-air employees running for office, here). However, where the candidate appears on the air as the subject of a news report, there is no “use” of the station under FCC rules and policies, and thus no need to give equal time.
Basically, to encourage stations to provide election coverage, there are instances where a broadcast station’s coverage of news events don’t constitute a “use” and thus don’t give rise to equal time requests. News and regularly scheduled news interview programs, and on-the-spot coverage of a news event, are considered by the FCC to be exempt programs, where the appearance of a candidate is not a “use” and does not give rise to equal opportunities. Over the years, as we wrote here and here, the FCC has been more and more liberal in its interpretations of what constitutes a news or news interview program. It is no longer just the evening newscast on a station and the boring Sunday morning talking heads new interview program that qualify. Instead, the FCC has recognized that people get their “news” from all sorts of different kinds of broadcast programs, and the FCC has determined that any program that regularly features newsmakers, where the program content is in the hands of the producers and where the program’s guests are selected for newsworthiness, and not to promote a particular political agenda, can be an exempt news or news interview program. So the FCC has ruled that a host of programs that may not look like hard news, from the Today Show to Entertainment Tonight, to the Phil Donahue program to even the Howard Stern radio show, could be exempt news interview programs where a candidate’s appearance did not trigger equal time. If they cover some aspect of the news, and regularly feature news makers, they are likely to be determined to be an exempt program.
A station need not get a declaratory ruling from the FCC to rely on this exemption. However, many do seek a ruling. As in this case, syndicated programmers in particular like to have the certainty of a ruling to reassure potential affiliated stations that, by picking up the program, they are not likely to subject themselves to equal time requests.
Obviously, there are many other nuances of this issue that need to be explored for definitive legal advice as to whether your programs are likely to be considered exempt from the equal opportunities rules, so seek advice if there are questions that arise. For more about this topic, and other political broadcasting topics, see our Guide to Political Broadcasting, here.