The 2020 presidential elections already loom large, with one of the over 20 Democratic candidates for the Presidential nomination seemingly appearing on whatever TV talk show you tune into on your TV set. With the first debate among these candidates scheduled for late June, it seems like we have a real election already underway – and it is time for broadcasters to start thinking about their political broadcasting obligations under FCC rules and the Communications Act, and beginning to make plans for compliance with those rules.
Stations in Iowa and other early primary states have already been receiving buys from Presidential candidates, PACs, and other third-party groups. That spending is sure to increase in the latter part of the year as these early primaries and caucuses are scheduled early in 2020. What should stations in Iowa and in other states be thinking about now to get ready for the 2020 elections?
We have written about some of the issues that broadcasters should already be considering in our Political Broadcasting Guide (which we plan to update shortly). Obviously, one of the primary issues is lowest unit rates – as those rates become effective 45 days before the primaries (or before any caucus which is open to members of the general public). Thus, the lowest unit charge windows for Presidential campaigns will start for the political contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in December, and roll across the country early next year as the other primaries and caucuses draw near. In addition to our Political Broadcasting Guide, we wrote about other issues you should be considering in determining your lowest unit rates here.
In addition to the question of rates for political ads, stations should be thinking about access for political candidates. Especially in the early primary and caucus states, with so many candidates for the Democratic nomination, spot availability may become tight in the weeks leading up to actual voting. But, as long as a candidate does not sit on their rights, equal opportunities requires that candidates have a right to respond to their opponents in equal amounts of broadcast time, and reasonable access requires that you make available time to all Federal candidates in reasonable amounts. But reasonable access does not require that you provide a candidate with all the time that they request (see our article here). As well-funded candidates come in to stations now to request big ad buys later in the political season, stations should consider whether they really want to sell those candidates all the time that they ask for – knowing that some of the less financially secure candidates may be delaying their buys until the last days before the primary. Equal opportunities will require that you fit in spots from those late-arriving candidates, so make sure you have sufficient advertising inventory in reserve in the weeks leading up to the election to make room for commercials from these candidates whose funding may not cover ads until late in the primary period.
There are issues to consider about free time for candidates. As we’ve written before, the FCC has determined that most interview programs where the content is under station control – even those that have little news value on the normal day – are deemed “news interview programs” exempt from equal time rules if they routinely cover issues of public importance. Bona fide news programming is also exempt from equal time. Thus, equal time is normally only an issue in making sure that all candidates have equal opportunities to buy spot time, and in those rare circumstances where a candidate appears on a purely entertainment program. In these days of media overload, candidates are looking for these nontraditional means of exposure in broadcast programming. So use care if a candidate appears as a character on a scripted TV show, or walks into the announcing booth at a local football game asking to do the play by play for a few minutes, or (especially when dealing with state and local candidates, see our posts here and here) where the candidate is a host of a broadcast program – as, depending on how these situations are handled, all could give rise to equal opportunity claims.
Another area where broadcasters need to pay attention is in connection with third party ads dealing with Federal issues. Sometimes the ads are subtle digs at the positions that a potential candidate is taking (“call Congressman X and tell him that he should stop voting for bills that are bankrupting the country”), and sometimes they are more direct attacks on the potential candidate. Sometimes they don’t directly address a particular politician at all, but are instead directed at an issue being debated in Congress. In any case, if the ads are dealing with Federal candidates or other issues being considered by the US House of Representatives or Senate, then they are Federal issue ads on which the station must maintain full online public file information, similar to that which is kept for any candidate advertising – the full schedule of advertising that is to be run, the class of time sold, the sponsor of the ad, and even the price that was paid for the spots (see our post here on the public file requirements for Federal issue ads).
We have also written, here, about issues concerning the content of these third-party ads, as stations can potentially have liability for defamatory content in those ads if the station knows or has reason to believe that the ads are in fact false. Being put on notice of the falsity of the ad by a letter from a representative of the candidate being attacked can constitute that reason to believe that the ad is false that, if it contains defamatory content, could theoretically result in liability to a station. Candidates who are attacked may be calling stations asking that ads from PACs and other third-parties be pulled from the airwaves, and stations need to have plans in place to be ready to evaluate and deal with such claims. While third-party ads do not get lowest unit rates, these ads can be more problematic than candidate ads as they potentially force stations to be judges of the truth of the content of those ads. Candidate-sponsored ads, on the other hand, cannot be censored, so stations have no liability for the broadcast content of those ads.
Finally, with the election season fast approaching, even stations not in early primary states should start planning. Some stations are no doubt already selling long-term contracts that will still be in effect during the primary season. Stations should be considering how to allocate the purchase price of these long-term contracts to reflect their actual seasonal value – rather than simply booking them as having a flat rate throughout the entire year – including the pre-election lowest unit rate periods. As we wrote in our Political Broadcasting Guide, the FCC allows you, in internal station documents, to allocate for lowest unit rate purposes, the purchase price of a long-term contract in a manner different than shown on invoices given to commercial clients, as long as that allocation more accurately reflects the seasonal value of the spots sold, adds up to the total purchase price of the package, and is not done simply to avoid the lowest unit rate periods. Consult with your attorney to make sure that you properly apply this process, but it could save you money in the long term.
These are but a few of the political issues that broadcasters should be considering. So start thinking about the political issues that will arise as we enter this political season, and check out our Political Broadcasting Guide and the guides prepared by the NAB and many other organizations representing broadcasters – as you can never have enough perspective on these issues. These rules are complex, and many candidates are getting smarter about the how to use the rules to their advantage, so be prepared for the upcoming onslaught of political advertising.