On November 10, Davis Wright Tremaine’s David Oxenford and Bobby Baker, the head of the FCC’s Office of Political Broadcasting, conducted a webinar on the FCC’s political broadcasting rules and policies. The webinar originated from Lansing, Michigan, before an audience of Michigan Broadcasters, and was webcast to broadcasters in 13 other states. Topics discussed included reasonable
In two races for the US Senate, candidates have filed defamation lawsuits against their opponents charging that attack ads go over the line from political argument to actionable falsehoods. However these suits ultimately play out, they demonstrate the premise that we’ve written about before, that broadcast stations are prohibited by FCC rules and the Communications Act from censoring the content of a candidate’s ad, and because they cannot censor the content of a candidate’s ad (or refuse to run a candidate’s ad because of the content of that ad), stations are immune from liability that might otherwise arise from that content. But the candidates being attacked can sue their opponents for the contents of those ads, and that is just what has happened in the North Carolina and Minnesota Senate races.
In North Carolina, according to press reports, Democratic candidate Kay Hagan has filed suit against the campaign of Elizabeth Dole for a commercial that accused Hagan of being associated with a group called Godless Americans – an ad ending with a woman’s voice that some interpreted as being that of Hagan (when it was in fact not) saying "there is no God." In Minnesota, Senator Norm Coleman has reportedly filed a lawsuit against Al Franken’s campaign claiming that Franken campaign ads improperly claimed that Coleman was rated one of the four most corrupt Senators and that he was getting an improperly financed apartment in Washington DC.
In the FCC’s recent Report and Order on Diversity, released earlier this year, the Commission announced new requirements for all broadcast station’s advertising sales contracts. The new FCC rule requires that all advertising contracts contain clauses ensuring that there is no discrimination based on race or gender in the sale of advertising time. This new requirement, which took effect in July, not only requires broadcasters to have these non-discrimination clauses in their advertising sales contracts, but will also require that broadcasters certify as to the existence of such clauses in their next license renewal application. Thus, to be sure that you can make such certifications, you must revise your advertising contracts to include a nondiscrimination provision, such as the one set out below, if you have not done so already.
These new measures are intended to increase participation in the broadcast industry by businesses owned by women and minorities. The Commission was concerned that some advertising contracts include either explicit or implicit “no urban/no Spanish” dictates. Such contractual limitations, the Commission explained, may violate U.S. anti-discrimination laws by either presuming that certain minority groups cannot be persuaded to buy the advertiser’s product or service, or worse, intentionally minimizing the number African Americans or Hispanics patronizing advertisers’ businesses.
Failing to meet the obligations set out under the law for required sponsorship identification on Federal political ads could, theoretically, cost candidates significant amounts of money – if stations decide to hold the candidates to the letter of the law. Under the terms of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (“BCRA”), Federal candidates airing television commercials that refer to a competing candidate must specifically state, in the candidate’s own voice, that he or she has approved the ad, while a full-screen image of the candidate appears on the screen. In addition, the name of the sponsoring candidate’s campaign committee must appear in text on the screen for at least 4 seconds at 4 percent of screen height, with sufficient color contrast to make the text readable. If the proper identification is not contained in an ad, the candidates forfeit their right to lowest unit rates for the entire pre-election period (45 days before a primary or 60 days before an election), even with respect to future ads that comply with the rules. In recent days, representatives of Democratic Congressional candidates have reportedly filed complaints that argue that Republican competitors have not complied with the rules in several cases, as their written disclosures did not air for the full four seconds. The challengers argue that television stations must take away LUR for these candidates. While the statute say that the candidates forfeit their rights to such rates, the law is unclear as to whether stations are obligated to deny that rate to candidates after the right has been forfeited – and these cases could resolve this issue.
Television stations undeniably have the power to charge full rates to candidates whose ads have not complied with the requirements of the campaign statute. However, many stations have been reluctant to do so for minor infractions such as the ones identified in this complaint. Why wouldn’t television stations want to charge more money? For several reasons. First, denying one candidate lowest unit rates will no doubt trigger a fly-specking of every commercial by the competitor who filed the complaint against the first candidate, to try to trigger a forfeiture of the second candidate’s right to Lowest Unit Rates, and adjudicating such complaints will no doubt make the station’s political sales process much more difficult and costly to administer. In addition, there is the question of whether, for a minor violation, a station really wants to give the other candidate a political advantage – especially if the candidate who gets charged more more wins the election and gets to vote on laws that may effect business in the future. But can stations legally continue to charge the lowest unit rate even when a candidate has not complied with the legal requirements for sponsorship identification?
Each election season brings new issues for broadcasters. In recent years, broadcasters are more and more frequently dealing with requests for political uses of the a station’s website. For the most part, unlike a broadcast station that is subject to the full panoply of the FCC’s political rules, those rules largely don’t apply to station websites (some FEC rules, will not be discussed here, may apply to websites). About the only informal pronouncement to come out of the FCC on the use of a station website is that, if the website is sold to one candidate as part of a package with broadcast spot time, then the same offer should be made to competitors of the candidate. This is not an application of FCC’s the rules to the Internet, but instead just a restatement of a long-standing FCC policy that, if one advertiser gets extra benefits that come with the purchase of ad time, and those benefits would be of value to a candidate, they should also be offered to the candidate, and that equal opportunities demands that all candidates for the same office be treated alike.
While the freedom from reasonable access, lowest unit rates, and equal time may seem like a boon to broadcasters, that freedom comes with a price. For instance, the “no censorship rule,” which forbids a station from editing the content of a candidate’s spot or rejecting that spot based on its content (unless that spot violates a Federal felony statute), does not apply to Internet spots. Because candidate spots broadcast on a station cannot be censored, the station has no liability for the content of those spots. So the station is immune for libel and slander, or copyright violations, or other sources of potential civil liability for the content of a candidate’s broadcast spots. But since these spots can be censored or rejected on the station’s website, a station could have theoretical liability for the content of the Internet spot even though the broadcaster could run the exact same spot on the air without fear of any liability. For instance, just recently, according to the Los Angeles Times, CBS asked You Tube to remove a McCain spot attacking Senator Obama as the spot used a copyrighted clip of a Katie Couric commentary without permission. Had that spot been running on a broadcast station, the station would have been forbidden from pulling the spot (and would have no liability for the copyright violation).
The Federal Election Commission ruled recently that it would not grant a waiver of the requirements for a verbal sponsorship identification on ads by an interest group, the Club for Growth, which wanted to run 10 and 15 second commercials opposing Federal candidates for Congress. Because of the abbreviated length of the commercials, the organization wanted the…
Last week’s announcement of the partnership between eBay and Bid4Spots and the impending full launch of Google’s service to sell online radio spots beg for FCC action to clarify how these services will be treated for lowest unit rate purposes. We have written about this issue before (see our note here), and the increasing number of online sales tools for broadcast advertising inventory highlights the issue. If advertisers can buy spots using these online systems on a single station, or if stations offer their spots to a particular advertiser at a set price for a specific class of spot, it would seem that these spots could have an effect on the station’s lowest unit rate if the spots sold through the online systems run during lowest unit rate periods (45 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election.). For the peace of mind for all broadcasters, it would be worth the FCC clarifying the status of these services as we hurtle toward what will probably be the busiest political year ever.
In looking at some of these systems, it appears that some of these systems are premised on specific stations offering spots to advertisers on a cost-per-point basis, for specific dayparts as designated by the advertiser and agreed to by the station. For instance Bid4Spots system advertises that it holds an auction to sell the spots on Thursday for the following week. And it appears that spots must be sold by a station in specific dayparts on a non-preemeptible basis. For the week in which the spots are offered, the sale of such spots would appear to set a lowest unit rate for non-preemptible spots that run in the same time period.