In odd years like 2017, most broadcasting stations don’t think about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules. But they should – both for special elections to fill open seats in Congress, and for state and local political offices. Recently, I have received a number of calls about elections to fill seats in Congress that were vacated by Congressmen appointed to positions in the Trump administration. For instance, the race in Georgia to fill HHS Secretary Tom Price’s seat has received much national attention. But there is also a race being fought now to fill Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s seat in Montana. Obviously, for Federal elections like these, broadcast stations serving these districts need to offer candidates the full panoply of candidate rights – including reasonable access, lowest unit rates, and equal opportunities. But in other parts of the country where there are no special Congressional elections, there are all sorts of political races taking place in this off year and, 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.
Some of these races will be high-profile, like the governor’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey and several big-city mayoral races. Some races may be much more locally focused on elections to school boards or town councils. Stations need to be prepared. 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 Federal 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, if they do, the other political rules apply.
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 equal amounts of time in equivalent time periods. Stations can decide to make available advertising only in certain dayparts (or on certain stations in a cluster) to state and local races, and can even make different dayparts (or stations) available for different political races, as long as all candidates for the same race are treated the same. So, for instance, a station could decide to offer only spots during weekend and overnight time periods to candidates for the city council, while offering candidate for governor time during all dayparts. They just need to treat all candidates (including independent and fringe party candidates) for the same state or local race in the same way.
If the time is sold to state and local candidates 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. 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.
For more about the political rules, see our Broadcaster’s Guide to Political Broadcasting here. Don’t forget about these political advertising rules – even though this is an odd numbered year!