Yesterday, the FCC’s Media Bureau issued a Declaratory Ruling, deciding that a syndicated television program, “Matter of Fact with Fernando Espuelas,” was a bona fide news interview program – meaning that appearances on the program by legally qualified candidates for public office would not give rise to equal opportunities (or “equal time” as it is often called). In looking at such request the FCC looked at the following factors – (1) the program was regularly scheduled, (2) its content is controlled by the station or program supplier, and (3) the decisions as to the inclusion of candidates are based on judgments as to the newsworthiness of the appearance and not for political purposes. If these factors are met, the program is considered a bona fide news interview program, and candidates can appear without competitors having the right to claim equal opportunities, and without a candidate’s appearance being considered a “use” that needs to be noted in the public files of stations that carry the program.
In addition to news interview programs, newscasts and on-the-spot coverage of a news event are also “exempt programs” where candidate appearances do not constitute “uses” giving rise to equal opportunities or public file obligations. 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 news 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 stations and syndicators 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.
For more on equal opportunities and on political broadcasting generally, see our Guide to Political Broadcasting, here.