Right now, most broadcasting stations and other media companies are focused on selling political advertising for the primaries for the 2024 elections and subsequent November election that will elect the President, the US Congress, and so many other officer holders in DC and elsewhere in the country. But broadcasters need to be aware of other elections that can also trigger political obligations – including lowest unit charges. I was reminded of that today when I saw the FEC’s notice of the dates for the special election to fill the Congressional seat recently opened by the expulsion of George Santos from Congress (the FEC notice setting out the dates for candidates to meet their FEC filing obligations). That special election, on February 13, 2024, triggers all of the FCC’s political obligations for stations serving this Long Island Congressional District. Once there are legally qualified candidates, equal opportunities, reasonable access, and political file obligations will arise. Lowest Unit Charges will also be required for all candidates in the race to fill this seat, as we are already in the 60-day window before the February 13 special election. The Democratic Party has selected their nominee and, according to the state’s notice about this election, other registered political parties have until tomorrow (December 15) to provide their nominations, and independent candidates can file their nominating petitions through December 18. This means that the candidates entitled to rights under FCC rules will be known in a matter of days.
For Federal elections like this special election, broadcast stations serving the district involved need to offer candidates the full panoply of candidate rights – including reasonable access, lowest unit rates, and equal opportunities (as well as the public file obligations that go along with any advertising associated with an election or the coverage of any issue of public importance). Stations also need to be alert for other elections that take place at odd times. Some states have municipal or school board elections at times other than the standard November dates that most people think about. As we have written before, most of the political rules apply to any election for public office that occur at these odd times, including these state and local electoral races as well as to the few Federal elections that take 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 sells. 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 from 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 legally qualified 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 on-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.
These political rules apply only to the candidates running in that particular election. So, for the vacant Long Island seat, only candidates to fill that seat get LUC during the 60-day window associated with that election (but stations in the area should note that Presidential candidates in primaries in nearby states may have an LUC window that could apply to candidates for those nominations). Reasonable access and equal opportunities apply even outside the LUC windows, once candidates are legally qualified.
There are always plenty of moving parts in accepting political advertising. In this hyper-partisan world, even state and local elections are being hotly contested, so stations should not be surprised to be approached with requests for the purchase of political time. Be prepared – and know what rules apply and when they apply to stay out of trouble with the FCC.