Political Broadcasting

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.
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We usually think of the FCC as the agency that sets the details of the broadcast disclosure obligations for political candidate’s TV ads. But the Federal Election Commission has its own rules for political advertising that are binding on the candidates, rather than on the stations. But because these ads run on broadcast stations,

While the shutdown of the Federal government delayed FCC activities in January, with the government back in business (hopefully for the long term), we have put together a Calendar of Important Dates for Broadcasters for 2019, available here. The calendar highlights normal regulatory dates like those for Annual EEO Public Inspection File Reports

Do you have a deal to buy a new station or a planned technical modification that needs FCC approval? Well, it looks like those plans may have to wait as the budget controversy in Washington has shut down the FCC. But what does the shut-down really mean for broadcasters? The FCC clarified some of the questions broadcasters have in a Public Notice released Wednesday.

Most applications will not be processed, though the FCC has made clear that it will have FCC staff members available to deal with issues related to the TV spectrum repacking that was caused by the incentive auction. So for those stations needing FCC approvals for actions relating to the repacking of the TV band, the FCC will be functioning. Unlike in past shutdowns (see, for instance, our article here), the FCC website will remain up and generally will be operating, and the CDBS and LMS databases used for most broadcast applications will continue to function (though without any sort of tech support if an applicant has problems). Certain other databases relevant to some aspects of broadcast operations (like the public complaint filing system, the International Bureau’s database used for filing earth station applications, and the tower registration database) will not be available. Perhaps most surprisingly, as the FCC does not specifically mention it in the Public Notice, the FCC has shuttered its Online Public Inspection File database for broadcasters. With that database not working, public file updates (including the Quarterly Issues Programs lists that are due to be added to the files by January 10, cannot be uploaded unless the government reopens. Note that, in the FCC’s orders adopting the online public inspection file obligations, stations are supposed to be able to provide access to their political files when the FCC system is offline (see our article here). While no access to the rest of the file is required, stations are supposed to be able to provide access to back-ups of the political file. Luckily, with few elections taking place at the moment, this should not generally be a widespread issue, but it could obviously become an issue should the shutdown persist.
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As we approach Election Day, the political ads seem to be getting more and more frequent, and often more and more nasty.  We provided this overview of what a station should do when it gets an attack ad two years ago, and the ads have not become kinder in the intervening period, so we will publish it again (with a few revisions). With the rise in the number of attack ads in this last week before the election, stations are facing more and more demands from candidates who are being attacked, asking that the ads be pulled from the airwaves because the content is not truthful or otherwise presents a distorted picture of reality.  What do stations do when confronted with these claims?

We have written about this issue several times before (see, for instance, our articles here and here).  In some cases, the stations can do nothing – if the attack is contained in an ad by a candidate or the candidate’s authorized campaign committee.  If a candidate in his or her own ads attacks another candidate, the station cannot pull the ad based on its content.  Ads by candidates and their authorized campaign committees are covered by the Communication Act’s “no censorship” provision, meaning that the station cannot (except in very limited circumstances) pull the ad based on its content (see more on the “no censorship” provision here).  Because the station cannot pull the ad based on its content, the station has no liability if the candidate’s attack ad defames their opponent.  In fact, we have heard of cases where a non-candidate group runs an attack ad containing claims that the target of the ad claims are untrue, where stations pull the ad, and where the claims soon reappear in the ads of the candidate who the third-party supported. When they objectionable claims are in a candidate’s own ads, the only remedy of the candidate that is being attacked is to sue the candidate who ran the ad.  But what about allegedly false claims made in ads by third parties – like PACs, unions, political parties or other non-candidate groups? 
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In this “political” year with Congressional mid-term elections in November, including many hotly contested races for seats in the US House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as many state and local elections, I receive many questions from broadcasters across the country. Perhaps the area in which most questions are received deals with the “political file,” particularly because these files are now available online. The fact that this file can now be viewed by anyone anywhere across the country has raised many questions that were perhaps less top of mind when the file was available only by physically visiting the main studio of a broadcast station. So, with the election just over a month away, meaning that the busiest advertising period will be coming up between now and the election, I thought that it would be worth taking a look at some of the online public file issues.

As an initial matter, it is worth mentioning that the political file has two main purposes. First, it is designed to provide information to the public about who is trying to convince them to vote in a certain way or to take action on other political issues that may be facing their country or community. Second, the file is to inform one candidate of what uses of broadcast stations his or her opponents are making. Thus, the documents placed in the file must be kept in the file for only two years from the date that they were created – perhaps on the assumption that at that point, we will be on to the next election cycle and old documents really won’t matter to the public or to competing candidates in the last election. But what needs to go into the file?
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With the lowest unit charge window for the November elections going into effect tomorrow (September 7), we thought that it was a good idea to review the basics FCC rules and policies affecting those charges. With this election, where control of Congress may well be hotly contested and may result in competitive elections across the country, your station needs to be ready to comply with all of the FCC’s political advertising rules. Lowest unit charges (or “Lowest Unit Rates”) guarantee that, in the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election, legally qualified candidates get the lowest rate for a spot that is then running on the station within any class of advertising time and particular daypart. Candidates get the benefit of all volume discounts without having to buy in volume – i.e., the candidate gets the same rate for buying one spot as your most favored advertiser gets for buying hundreds of spots of the same class. But there are many other aspects to the lowest unit rates, and stations need to be sure that they get these rules right.

It is a common misperception that a station has one lowest unit rate, when in fact almost every station will have several – if not dozens of lowest unit rates – one lowest unit rate for each class of time in each daypart. Even at the smallest radio station, there are probably several different classes of advertising spots. For instance, there will be different rates for spots running in morning drive than for those spots that run in the middle of the night. Each time period for which the station charges a differing rate is a class of time that has its own lowest unit rate. On television stations, there are often classes based not only on daypart, but on the individual program. Similarly, if a station sells different rotations, each rotation on the station is its own class, with its own lowest unit rates (e.g. a 6 AM to Noon rotation is a different class than a 6 AM to 6 PM rotation, and both are a different class from a 24 hour rotator – and each can have its own lowest unit rate). Even in the same time period, there can be preemptible and non-preemptible time, each with its own set of charges resulting in different classes of time, each with its own lowest unit rate. Any class of spots that run in a unique time period, with a unique rotation or unique rights attached to it (e.g., different levels of preemptibility, different make-good rights, etc.), will have a different lowest unit rate. Stations need to review each class of time sold on their station, find the lowest rate charged to a commercial advertiser for a spot of the same class that is running at the same time that the candidate wants to buy a spot, and that lowest rate will be what the candidate is charged.
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Yesterday, we wrote about the regulatory dates coming up for broadcasters in September.  Even though that was an extensive list, we realized later that we left a few off.  So here are a few more issues to consider in September.  Plus, the FCC yesterday reminded repacked TV stations of all of the requirements for TV stations involved in the repacking of the TV band following the Incentive Auction which, as we noted in our post yesterday, formally begins this month.

One date that we overlooked was the effective date for a general increase in FCC application fees – those fees that commercial broadcasters pay every time they file an application for a construction permit, approval of a purchase or sale of a station, a license renewal, an STA or many other requests for FCC action.  As we wrote here, the FCC recently announced that the fees were going up to reflect inflation.  Last week, the FCC issued a Public Notice announcing that those new fees are effective on September 4.  So commercial stations filing applications on September 4 or afterward need to remember to pay the new fees, or risk having their applications returned.
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Last week, it was announced that Google through its DoubleClick platform, would be offering programmatic buying opportunities for advertisers looking to place audio ads into online streams. While that system is initially being rolled out among the big digital audio services, if it or other similar platforms are expanded more broadly, it could bring more advertising into internet radio, podcasting and other digital audio program channels. But, being the spoilsports that we tend to be as lawyers, we wanted to pass on some issues to consider in accepting programmatic buys – whether in online streams or in over-the-air broadcasts. The immediacy of the audience’s perception of an audio insertion into a program stream can bring unintended results – some of which may have legal consequences.

We have already written about the issues for some of the programmatic buying platforms that are inserting ads into broadcast radio and television programming. As we wrote here and here, these ads can potentially impact a broadcaster’s legal compliance – particularly in the area of political broadcasting, where these ads could affect a station’s lowest unit rate, as well as reasonable access, equal opportunities and even political file disclosure obligations. While none of these FCC issues apply directly to online ads, as we wrote here, there are potential rules on political advertising that may soon be applied to online ads, either through actions by the Federal government or by the enactment of rules to implement a recently passed New York State law that compels disclosures for online political ads similar to those required by the FCC for broadcast ads. There are other considerations as well.
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With election season upon us again, I’ve had one question that has come up repeatedly in the last few weeks about local candidates – usually running for state or municipal offices – who appear in advertisements for local businesses that they own or manage. Often times, these individuals will routinely appear in a business’ ads outside of election season, and the candidate simply wants to continue to appear on their businesses’ ads during the election as well. We wrote about this question in an article published two years ago, and since the question has been coming up again, it is worth revisiting the subject. What is a station to do when a local advertiser decides to run for office?

While we have many times written about what happens when a broadcast station’s on-air employee runs for office (see, for instance, our articles here, here and here), we have addressed the question less often about the advertiser who is also a candidate. If a candidate’s recognizable voice or, for TV, image appears on a broadcast station in a way that is not negative (e.g. it is not in an ad attacking that candidate), outside of an exempt program (in other words, outside of a news or news interview program which, as we wrote here, is a very broad category of programming exempt from the equal time rules) that appearance is a “use” by the political candidate. “Uses” can arise well outside the political sphere, so Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were pulled from TV when he was running for office, as were any re-runs of The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice featuring Donald Trump. An appearance by a candidate in a commercial for his or her local business is a “use” which needs to be included in a station’s political file (providing all the information about the sponsor, schedule and price of the ad that you would for any pure political buy). But that does not necessarily mean that a station needs to pull the ad from the air.
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