Political Broadcasting

It seems like whenever Democrats are elected to serve as President and take control of Congress, there is talk about the revival of the Fairness Doctrine as some panacea for restoring balance and civility to political debate.  In recent weeks, we have seen many articles blaming conservative talk radio for the current divisions in the country and for the widespread belief in discredited claims about political and social topics.  This same debate arose almost exactly 12 years ago following the election of President Obama (see our articles here and here about that debate).   In coming days, we will write about a new round of legislative proposals looking to impose content moderation rules on digital media (including a Florida proposal to essentially block social media platforms from de-platforming one candidate, while allowing another candidate access, and a recent Congressional proposal removing Section 230 immunity from digital platforms for certain kinds of speech).  But, given the discussion of reviving the old Fairness Doctrine, we thought it worth taking a look back at just what that Doctrine required, the reasons for its demise, and some of the issues that would surround any attempt to bring it back.

First, it is important to understand what the Doctrine covered and what it did not.  It was a broadcast doctrine adopted in 1949, in an era that pre-dated the political talk that we now see dominating so many cable networks.  It also was different from the Equal Time Rule which is still in effect for candidate appearances on broadcast stations.  The Fairness Doctrine required that stations provide balanced coverage of all controversial issues of public importance.  The Fairness Doctrine never required “equal time” in the sense of strict equality for each side of an issue on a minute-for-minute basis.  In talk programs and news coverage, a station just had to make sure that both points of view were presented in such a way that the listener would get exposure to them.  How that was done was left to the station’s discretion, and the FCC intervened in only the most egregious cases.
Continue Reading The Return of the Fairness Doctrine – What it Was and Why it Won’t Return

Where do all the Washington DC legal issues facing TV broadcasters stand in these early days of a new Administration? While we try on this Blog to write about many of those issues, we can’t always address everything that is happening. Every few months, my partner David O’Connor and I update a list of the

After this year’s contentious elections, it is with reluctance that we even broach the subject – but broadcasters and cable companies need to be aware that in many jurisdictions there are elections this November. While most broadcast stations don’t think about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules in odd numbered years, they should – particularly in connection with state and local political offices.  There are elections for governor in November in Virginia and New Jersey, and all sorts of state and local elections in different parts of the country.  These include some mayoral races in major US cities.  Some of these local elections don’t even occur in November – and there are even a few that are taking place as early as next month. As we have written before, most of the political rules apply to these state and local electoral races so broadcasters need to be paying attention.

Whether the race is for governor or much more locally focused, like elections for state legislatures, 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.
Continue Reading Reminder – 2021 Will Include Some Off-Year Elections for State and Local Office – and FCC Political Broadcasting Rules Do Apply

Here we are, in a new and hopefully more “normal” year – wondering what will be ahead.  Each year, at about this time, we put together a look at the regulatory dates ahead for broadcasters – or at least the primary ones that we already know.  This year is no different – and we offer for your review our Broadcaster’s Regulatory Calendar for 2021.  While this calendar should not be viewed as an exhaustive list of every regulatory date that your station will face, it highlights many of the most important dates for broadcasters in the coming year – including dates for license renewalsEEO Public Inspection File ReportsQuarterly Issues Programs listschildren’s television obligations, annual fee obligations and much more.  This year, for LPTV and TV translator operators, there are also dates associated with this summer’s deadline for all such stations to be operating digitally (see our article here).

While this likely will not be a big political advertising year like 2020, there will be some state and local races – so we note the start of the Lowest Unit Charge window for this year’s November election – relevant in states like New Jersey and Virginia where there are races for governor and state legislature, and to the many locations across the country that will have mayor’s races and other state and local political contests.  Look for local information about the dates for any primary elections for these elections – as those primaries have their own LUC windows for the 45 days preceding the primary.  See our article here on how the other political broadcasting rules apply to state and local elections.
Continue Reading A Broadcaster’s 2021 Regulatory Calendar – Looking at Some of the Important Dates for the Year Ahead

December is a busy month for broadcasters with routine filings to complete and action on FCC proceedings that will carry over to the next administration.  Keep on top of these dates and deadlines even as your calendar fills up with holiday celebrations.

We start at the beginning of the month, with December 1 being the deadline for the filing of applications for the renewal of license of radio stations in Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, and TV stations in Alabama and Georgia.  These stations should have already reviewed their public file (as we noted here, stations should pay particularly close attention to their political files) and be putting the finishing touches on their renewal application (see our article about license renewal preparation here).
Continue Reading December Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters: License Renewals, EEO Filings, DTV Ancillary/Supplementary Fees, Comment Deadlines and More

Here are some of the regulatory developments of the last week of significance to broadcasters, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • After reviewing comments submitted this summer (we wrote about the rulemaking, here), the FCC will vote at its next

In the last few days, two defamation cases filed against media companies by the Trump campaign have been dismissed – one on the merits and one by agreement of the parties.  This includes the suit filed by the campaign against Northland Television, the licensee of a rural Wisconsin television station.  That station was perhaps the smallest TV station to air an ad by a non-candidate group, Priorities USA, that the Trump campaign alleged was misleadingly edited to assert that the President had labeled the coronavirus a “hoax.”  As we wrote here when that suit was first filed, the campaign claimed that the reference to the hoax was not about the virus itself but was actually a reference to “the Democrats’ exploitation of a pandemic and related characterization of the candidate’s response to the pandemic.”  This suit was vigorously opposed by the station and the sponsor of the ad.  The parties have now agreed to voluntarily dismiss that suit with prejudice, meaning that it cannot be refiled.

Another suit was brought by the campaign against CNN alleging that CNN had libeled the President by publishing on its website an article from one of its contributors who alleged that the campaign had assessed the risks of seeking Russian assistance in the 2020 campaign and had “decided to leave that option on the table.”  The campaign alleged that the statement was false and defamatory – and published with knowledge that it was false.  CNN had countered that the statement was protected as it was presented as opinion, not fact, and moreover it was published without “actual malice.”  As we have written before (see, for instance, our articles here and here), under Supreme Court precedent, a claim about a public figure for defamation can only be sustained if it is both false and published with “actual malice” – meaning that the publisher knew that it was false, or acted with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was false and published it anyway.
Continue Reading Two Trump Defamation Claims Dismissed Including Claim Against TV Station for Political Attack Ad – What is the Relevance for Broadcasters? 

The FCC yesterday released a Public Notice making clear that lowest unit rates (or lowest unit charges) end on Election Day.  Some broadcasters had asked the question, fearful that there would be political advertising bought after Election Day to take positions on issues about counting the vote and other legal matters that could arise

As the campaign enters its final weeks, the FCC has begun to send out the next round of proposed consent decrees to radio broadcasters unable to certify in their license renewal applications, because of perceived deficiencies in their political file, that that every document was placed into their FCC-hosted online public inspection file on a timely basis (see, for instance, this decree released yesterday).  The certification of public file compliance is required of every applicant for license renewal.  As with any other certification, a licensee must review its records and truthfully answer the application’s question, either certifying that it has complied with all of the public file obligations or disclosing any deficiencies.  As we wrote last year, in cases of substantial noncompliance, the FCC has fined stations that essentially ignored the public file rules.  But, until recently, in cases where a station had made a good faith effort to comply but had some minor deficiencies in the public file (as is natural over an eight-year renewal period), the FCC has generally been granting renewals, acknowledging that minor violations do not signal that a broadcaster is not operating in the public interest.  However, in August, the Commission initiated a new policy for stations that reported deficiencies in the political portion of the public inspection file, sending draft consent decrees to virtually all stations unable to certify full public file compliance because of any political file issue.

These consent decrees were modeled on the ones that were sent in July to six large radio broadcast groups as a result of an earlier FCC review of their political files (see our article here on those consent decrees, which also provides a review of a broadcaster’s political file obligations).  The difference is, of course, that the July decrees went to large radio groups for what the FCC described as hundreds of violations at many radio stations.  The new renewal-driven consent decrees were sent to all stations that did not certify political file compliance, even to stations that had only a handful of political advertising sales if those stations determined that they could not certify that all required documents went into the file in a timely fashion.  While the decrees carry no monetary fine, they do require that the signing station enter into a compliance program – appointing a compliance officer, having a written compliance plan, reporting any violations to the FCC as they occur, and providing a report to the FCC at the end of each calendar year for two years cataloging all political sales and when the required documents went into the political file.
Continue Reading More FCC Consent Decrees for Political File Violations – Issues to Watch in the Last Weeks of the Election