broadcast equal opportunites

In the last few days, much has been written about the decision of a national radio broadcaster to prohibit the host of a country music radio program from airing an interview of a Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg on a nationally syndicated program. This decision has prompted many questions as to when the FCC’s equal opportunities (sometimes referred to as “equal time”) rules apply to appearances of a candidate on a broadcast station.

Two years ago, we wrote about a Declaratory Ruling issued by the FCC’s Media Bureau which addressed many of these issues. In that decision, the FCC determined that a syndicated television program, “Matter of Fact with Fernando Espuelas,” was an “exempt program” which would not give rise to equal opportunities. The FCC rules state that bona fide news interview programs are exempt programs, meaning that appearances on the program by legally qualified candidates for public office would not give rise to equal opportunities for other candidates to get free time on the stations which aired the program. In reviewing that request for declaratory ruling, or in considering whether any program would be exempt, what does the FCC consider?
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The FCC yesterday issued a Declaratory Ruling at the request of the producers of a new syndicated Crime Watch Daily TV show, a program that will give a daily rundown of crime stories including ongoing court trials from around the nation, declaring that the program would not give rise to equal opportunities claims from political candidates. As the producers expected that political candidates would be featured in the program’s daily coverage of crime news (e.g. sheriffs or district attorneys who may be running for reelection in local elections), they wanted to be sure that competing candidates would not have grounds to request equal time from stations carrying the program – which obviously would severely limit the attractiveness of the program. The FCC looked at the description of the nature of the program – where the producer is making editorial decisions about who will appear on the program based on determinations of newsworthiness in the exercise of their journalistic judgment, not based on an attempt to favor or highlight any political candidate. Based on these representations, the FCC concluded that the show was exempt from the equal opportunities obligations of Section 315(a) of the Communications Act.

We have written about the equal opportunities rules (or what many refer to as “equal time”) many times before (see, for instance, our article here). When a candidate makes a “use” of a broadcast station, opposing candidates are entitled to equal time on the station, if they request that equal time within 7 days. If the first candidate did not pay for that airtime, the second candidate gets the time for free. So, if an on-air employee of a station decides to run for public office, once that employee becomes a legally qualified candidate by filing the necessary paperwork for a place on the ballot or taking the steps to launch a write-in campaign, if the employee stays on the air, opposing candidates can request, and are entitled to, equal time on the station. And these opposing candidates don’t need to deliver the weather report or introduce the next song as the on-air employee may have been doing. Instead, the opposing candidates can use the time to promote their campaign, even if the on-air employee never mentioned his or her candidacy on the air (see our article on on-air employees running for office, here). However, where the candidate appears on the air as the subject of a news report, there is no “use” of the station under FCC rules and policies, and thus no need to give equal time.
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The FCC yesterday issued another in its series of EEO random audit notices, asking that approximately 170 radio stations nationwide provide information about their hiring practices.  Information requested includes the last two years worth of broadcast EEO Public File reports, plus more complete documentation of the efforts outlined in the Public File reports and demonstrating that the information provided in the annual report was really conducted and accurately reported.  In addition, the FCC asks that a station provide an explanation if their most recent EEO public fie report cannot be found on the Station’s website.  The FCC’s Public Notice about this audit, which lists the stations that must respond, can be found here.  That Public Notice also reminds broadcasters of the obligation to post the EEO public file report on the station’s website, perhaps indicating that the FCC has been investigating and has found instances where this is not being done.  Responses to the audit must be filed by September 21.  A form of the EEO audit letter is available here

On the same day as the FCC issued this audit for radio stations, it issued a Public Notice to remind Multi-Channel Video Programming Distributors (MVPDs) with six or more full-time employees, including cable systems, of their obligation to file by September 30 their Annual EEO Program Reports on FCC Form 396-C .  This form is to be filed through the FCC’s electronic filing system.  This notice also reminds certain cable systems of the need to submit supplemental information about their hiring efforts to the FCC. 


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