advertising on controversial issues

Last month, the FCC issued what it termed a “clarification” of the obligations of broadcasters to disclose in their public inspection files each and every candidate and issue discussed in any Federal issue adWe wrote about the Clarification here.  That decision prompted many questions among broadcasters as to how they would comply with the requirement to uniformly identify every issue in political ads, when that judgement might well be quite subjective.  The National Association of Broadcasters apparently agreed, and filed a Petition for Reconsideration of the Clarification, available here.  Hearst Television, Graham Media, Nexstar, Fox, Tegna, and Scripps joined the NAB in filing the Petition.

The NAB’s Petition raises numerous issues about the FCC decision.  It suggests that the Commission did not have the power to make what most in broadcasting thought was a change in the rules without first soliciting public comment on the proposed changes.  The Petition also argues that the Clarification sets up requirements that will be almost impossible to meet.  The FCC stated that “a political issue of national importance” (which is what an issue ad must discuss in order to trigger the disclosure obligations) includes anything pending before Congress.  The NAB asks how a broadcaster is supposed to know about every issue that may be pending before Congress?  The NAB also expresses concern about the catch-all determination in the Clarification stating that political issues of national importance can go beyond just pending legislation or federal political candidates to include any political issue that is subject to discussion and debate at a national level.  The NAB argues that this could encompass almost anything except the most hyperlocal issue (e.g., a school bond issue).  All sorts of advertising could end up being swept up into this definition. 
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The FCC today asked for public comments on the petition of the MusicFirst Coalition asking the Commission to take action against broadcast stations who did not fairly address on air the proposed sound recording public performance royalty for terrestrial radio.  The Petition, about which we wrote here, alleges, with very few specifics, that some radio stations have taken adverse actions against musical artists who have spoken out in support of the royalty, and also that stations have refused to run ads supporting the performance royalty while running their own ads opposing the royalty (opposing ads which MusicFirst claims contain false statements).  MusicFirst submits that these actions are contrary to the public interest.  The FCC has asked for comment on specific issues raised in the Petition.  Comments are to be filed by September 8, and Replies on September 23.  

The specific questions on which the FCC seeks comment are as follows:

(i)      whether and to what extent certain broadcasters are “targeting and threatening artists who have spoken out in favor of the PRA, including a refusal to air the music of such artists";

(ii)    the effects of radio broadcasters’ alleged refusal to air advertisements from MusicFIRST in support of the PRA;

(iii)   whether and to what extent broadcasters are engaging in a media campaign, coordinated by NAB, which disseminates falsities about the PRA; and

(iv) whether certain broadcasters have evaded the public file requirements by characterizing their on-air spots in opposition to the PRA as public service announcements.

 While we were concerned about the fact that the Commission is seeking these comments potentially indicating that the FCC might feel that the broadcaster has some obligation to address all sides of all controversial issues, implying that there is life in some vestige of the Fairness Doctrine, we were heartened by the FCC’s acknowledgment of the First Amendment issues that the petition raises.  The Commission stated:

We recognize that substantial First Amendment interests are involved in the examination of speech of any kind, and it is not clear whether remedies are necessary or available to address the actions alleged by MusicFIRST.


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A story in today’s Wall Street Journal discusses the significant amount of money being spent on television advertising for and against pending proposals for health care reform.  As we have written before, broadcasters are required to keep in their public file information about advertising dealing with Federal issues – records as detailed as those kept for political candidates.  Information in the file should include not only the sponsor of the ad, but also when the spots are scheduled to run (and, after the fact, when they did in fact run), the class of time purchased, and the price paid for the advertising.  Clearly, the health care issue is a Federal issue, as it is being considered by the US Congress in Washington.  So remember to keep your public file up to date with this required information. 

Section 315 of the Communications Act deals with these issues, stating that these records must be kept for any request to purchase time on a "political matter of national importance", which is defined as any matter relating to a candidate or Federal election or "a national legislative issue of public importance."  Clearly, health care would fit in that definition.  The specific information to be kept in the file includes:

  • If the request to purchase time is accepted or rejected
  • Dates on which the ad is run
  • The rates charged by the station
  • Class of time purchased
  • The issue to which the ad refers
  • The name of the purchaser of the advertising time including:
    • The name, address and phone number of a contact person
    • A list of the chief executive officers or members of the executive committee or board of directors of the sponsoring organization.


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