The American Issues Project has recently started running a controversial new television ad attacking Barrack Obama for his connections to former Weather Underground figure William Ayers.  The text of the ad is reported here.  While reportedly some cable outlets (including Fox News) have refused to air the ad, numerous broadcast stations are also wondering what the legal implications of running the ad may be.  We have already seen many other attack ads being run by third-party groups – including political parties, long-standing activist groups like Move On.org, as well as from new organizations like American Issues Project which have seemingly been formed recently.  As the use of such ads will no doubt increase as we get closer to the November election, it is important that broadcasters understand the issues that may arise in connection with such ads under various laws dealing with political broadcasting.  Legal issues that must be considered arise not only under FCC rules, but also potentially in civil courts for liability that may arise from the content of the ad.  Broadcast stations are under no obligation to run ads by third party groups, and stations have a full right to reject those ads based on their content.  This is in contrast to ads by Federal candidates, who have a right of reasonable access to all broadcast stations, and whose ads cannot be censored by the stations.  As a candidate’s ad cannot be censored, the station has no liability for its contents.  In contrast, as the station has the full discretion as to whether or not it will run a third-party ad, it could have liability for defamation or other liabilities that might arise from the content of such ads that it decides to accept and put on the air.  

The standards for proving defamation (libel and slander) of a public figure are high, but if the ad does contain some clearly false statements, the standard could in fact be met.   Basically, to have liability, the station needs to run an ad containing a false statement either knowing that the ad is untrue or with "reckless disregard" for the truthfulness of the statements made.  This is referred to as the "malice standard."  Essentially, once a station is put on notice that the ad may be untrue (usually by a letter from the candidate being attacked, or from their lawyers),  the station needs to do their own fact checking to satisfy themselves that there is a basis for the claims made or, theoretically, the station could itself be subject to liability for defamation if the claims prove to be untrue.  A few years ago, some TV stations in Texas ended up having to pay a candidate because they ran an ad by an attack group that was shown to contain false statements, and the ad was run even after the candidate complained that the statements were untrue.  These determinations are often difficult to make as the ad’s creators usually have hundreds of pages of documentation that they say supports their claims, while the person being attacked usually has documentation to refute the claims.  Thus, the determination as to whether or not to run the ad is a decision that each station needs to make after consultation with their lawyers, and after careful review of the spot and the backing documentation.


Continue Reading Independent Groups Start Running Presidential Attack Ads – What Are the Legal Implications for Broadcasters?

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

The New York Times ran an article about how certain African-American radio hosts were acting as cheerleaders for the Obama campaign, and contrasting that to past elections where talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh gave a boost to Republican candidates on their programs.  How is it that these programs can take political positions without triggering requirements that opposing candidates get equal time?  Under FCC rules, unless a candidate’ recognizable voice or image is broadcast by a station, there is no right to equal opportunities.  In the past, until the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine by declaring it to be unconstitutional, even without a candidate appearance, the station would have had an obligation to give both sides of a controversial issue of public importance, such as an election, free time to respond to on-air statements by an announcer.  When the doctrine was abolished, stations were free to air pointed programs taking positions on issues, giving rise initially principally to the conservative commentators, and more recently to their more liberal counterparts such as those heard on Air America radio.

The abolition of the Fairness Doctrine also allowed broadcasters to editorialize, even endorsing candidates for political office without having to give the opponent of their favored candidate equal time, just like print media can do. Similarly, a station can take a position on a ballot issue, or on another controversial issue of public importance in their communities without having to provide time to those with opposing viewpoints – allowing stations to fully participate in their communities political life.  Under the Fairness Doctrine, stations even had to give time to those with viewpoints opposed to parties who bought time on a controversial issue if the opponents could not themselves afford to buy time.  The occasional discussion of reviving the Fairness Doctrine ignores these issues.


Continue Reading No Candidate, No Fairness Doctrine and No Equal Time

According to press reports, the Obama campaign is contemplating an ad schedule during the upcoming Summer Olympics.  This raises the question of what political broadcasting rules would apply to such a buy.  The Olympics run from August 8 through 24, before the lowest unit rate window for political candidates.  Thus, the Obama campaign is not entitled to lowest unit rates.  Instead, the candidate would only be entitled to a "comparable rate" to what a commercial advertiser in a similar situation would receive.  The campaign would not get frequency discounts that a big Olympics sponsor might get, unless the campaign bought in the same frequency, or other discounts that may apply to larger advertisers.  But the reasonable access provisions of the rules do apply once you have a legally qualified candidate, so it would seem as if at least some political ads would have to be placed in the Olympic programming.  In various political seminars held throughout the country, when this question has been raised, the FCC representatives have consistently said that, given the fact that the Olympics run for such a long period, at least some access must be made available to Federal candidates who are willing to pay the price that the airtime commands.

During the Super Bowl, the Obama campaign bought time, but it was purchased on local stations, not on the network itself (see our post here).  Affiliates of NBC would also have reasonable access issues of their own, were the Obama campaign to approach them directly, or were some local Federal candidate to request time on their stations.  As these stations have less inventory during the Olympics than does the network, the amount of time that would have to be provided would be less (and a candidate need not be given access to the exact time spot that they might request – not everyone can get the coveted spots in certain high profile event’s finals – as long as the access that they are given is reasonable under the circumstances).  But the access rules would apply -so at least some access would have to be given.  Note that in a few states with late primaries for Congress and the Senate, it is possible that there would be Federal candidates entitled to lowest unit rates, even during the Olympics.  State and local candidates, however, have no right of access, so stations would not have to sell them time in the Olympics.


Continue Reading The Politcal Broadcasting Implications of An Olympic Ad Buy

At a meeting held this week, the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) adopted Guidelines promoting the use of "posting" or audience delivery guarantees for the radio industry.  While these guidelines are voluntary, and no doubt some broadcasters will not adopt the practice, those who do should be aware of the political broadcasting implications.  For years, at political broadcasting seminars that I have conducted around the country, the question of how posting affects the political broadcasting obligations of television broadcasters has been much discussed. In its 1991 policy statement on Political Broadcasting, which essentially established the rules that broadcasters have followed in the years since, the Commission’s entire discussion of how audience underdelivery make good spots affected a station’s political broadcasting obligations was essentially addressed in two sentences – essentially saying that such guarantees must be made available to candidates in the same manner as commercial advertisers.  Thus, stations must offer audience delivery guarantees to political advertisers if they offer such guarantees to commercial advertisers.  The 1992 reconsideration added a few more sentences, making clear that any make-good spots provided to meet any delivery guaranty would not need to be considered in determining the lowest unit charge of the time periods in which the make good runs.  What the Commission leaves to the broadcaster, however, is to fashion a way to compensate the candidate for underdelivery when the underdelivery may not be discovered for months (when the next ratings book is released), which will usually be after the election for which the candidate purchased the spots. 

In the television industry, where posting has been common for years, stations deal with the political implications in many different ways.  First, not all purchased spots will have delivery guarantees. Under Commission rules, spots that have different rights can be considered to be spots of a different class, and each class of spots will have its own lowest unit rate.  Thus, spots with audience delivery guarantees will likely have a higher price than those that do not have the guarantees.  As the make good spots for any underdelivery of audience will be of little value if they are not available until after an election, the candidates will usually opt for the lower priced spots without the guarantees.  Alternatively, stations can offer candidates a discount off of their lowest unit rates for spots with guarantees in exchange for the candidates agreeing to waive any underdelivery make-good spots.  In a few cases, candidates agree to take any make-good spots to which they may be entitled, and use them after the election to thank their supporters or to convey policy positions to their constituents.


Continue Reading RAB Adopts Guidelines for “Posting” – Remember to Consider the Political Broadcasting Implications

The FCC today provided two more examples of its policy that virtually any sort of interview program is going to be deemed a "bona fide news interview program" exempt from any claim of equal opportunities (or "equal time" as it is commonly referred to) if the program features an appearance by a political candidate. In the decisions released today, the FCC declared that the 700 Club produced by the Christian Broadcasting Network (decision here) and TMZ produced by Telepictures Productions (decision here), both syndicated across the country, were analogous to programs like Entertainment Tonight, which the FCC had previously found to be an exempt program.  While these programs may focus on some unique aspect of the news or current affairs, the fact that they cover the candidates with their own particular slant (entertainment news, music news or whatever) does not prevent them from being considered bona fide news interview programs.  Where the coverage of the candidate is done based on good faith determinations of what is newsworthy rather than to politically favor the candidate, and where the programming remains under the control of the program producers and not the candidate, the programming is considered exempt from equal opportunities.  This is fully consistent with past Commission policy which we have written about many times before (see, for instance, our post on the evolution of this exemption in the context of political debates, here, and our posts on the candidacies of Fred Thompson and Stephen Colbert).  Thus, while these decisions are not controversial, they do raise some questions that broadcasters and candidates should ponder.

The first interesting question is raised by a paragraph included in both of the decisions released today.  The paragraph warns licensees that, if they are carrying syndicated programming that contains an appearance by a political candidate, and that program is relying on  the news interview exception, the licensee must itself make a determination that the program is newsworthy.  I think that this ties in with another line in the decisions stating that there is no evidence that the decisions by the program producers that the appearances by the candidates are newsworthy were not bona fide journalistic decisions.  In other words, if the program producer was to include candidate appearances in a blatantly political way (e.g. by totally excluding the candidates of one party and promoting the candidates of the other), then the Commission could conclude that the decisions were not "bona fide,"  and that equal opportunities did apply.


Continue Reading FCC Declares 700 Club and TMZ are Exempt From Equal Time – With Some Issues Left Unaddressed

The Public and Broadcasting is a document first written by the FCC in the 1970s to tell the public about how the FCC regulates broadcast stations, and to tell the public how they can get involved in the regulatory process.  Broadcasters must maintain a copy of the manual in their public file, and make it available to members of the public who request it.  For years, the manual was grossly out of date, finally being updated a few years ago.  Today, the FCC issued a Public Notice announcing that they have once again updated The Public and Broadcasting, and that all stations need to place the new version in their public file.  The new version, with a new subtitle "How to Get the Most Service from Your Local Station" can be found here.  Stations should print that document, and place it in their public file.

The manual is updated, and sets out most of the programming and other operational rules that would be of interest to the public.  The manual seems to be objective – pointing out that most programming decisions are left to the broadcast licensee to avoid violating the Freedom of Speech rights of the broadcaster. 


Continue Reading FCC Releases New Version of the Public and Broadcasting and Sets Up Help Desk for Broadcast Complaints

In the last few weeks, I’ve received several calls from broadcasters about on-air employees who have decided to run for local political office, and the equal time obligations that these decisions can create.  Initially, it is important to remember that equal opportunities apply to state and local candidates, as well as Federal candidates.  And the rules apply as soon as the candidate is legally qualified, even if the spot airs outside the "political windows" used for lowest unit rate purposes (45 days before a primary and 60 days before the general election).  For more information about how the rules apply, see our Political Broadcasting Guide.  In one very recent example of the application of these rules, a situation in Columbia, Missouri has been reported in local newspaper stories concerning a radio station morning show host who decided to run for the local elective hospital board.  To avoid having to give equal time to the host’s political opponents, the station decided to take the employee off the air.  This was but one option open to the station, as set forth in the article, quoting the head of the Missouri Broadcasters Association, who accurately set out several other choices that the station could have taken. 

These choices for the station faced with an on-air host who runs for office include:

  • Obtain waivers from the opponents of the station employee allowing the employee to continue to do his job, perhaps with conditions such as forbidding any discussions of the political race.
  • Allow the candidate to continue to broadcast in exchange for a negotiated amount of air time for the opponents
  • Provide equal time to the opposing candidates equal to the amount of time that the host’s voice was heard on the air (if the opponents request it within 7 days of the host being on the air)
  • Take the host off the air during the election

Other situations have also arisen concerning non-employees, running for office, who may work for another local station, for ad agencies, or for advertisers, but whose voice or picture appears on spots that run on a station.


Continue Reading On-Air Broadcast Stations Employees Who Run for Elective Office – Equal Time for Local Candidates

In the hotly contested Democratic Presidential nominating contest, the delegates from Michigan and Florida, which already held Presidential primaries which were labeled as meaningless by the Democratic Party, may become crucial in deciding a winner in the race.  Thus, there have been discussions, particularly in Michigan, of holding another Presidential primary or caucus to award

In the last few days before the Super Tuesday series of presidential primaries, efforts are being made across the political spectrum to convince voters to vote for or against the remaining candidates.  With Obama buying Super Bowl ads in many markets, Clinton planning a one-hour program on the Hallmark Channel the night before the primaries, Rush Limbaugh and other conservative radio host attacking McCain, and third-party interest groups and unions running ads supporting or attacking various candidates, a casual observer, looking at this media blitz, may wonder how all these efforts work under the rules and laws governing the FCC and political broadcasting.

For instance, sitting here watching the Super Bowl, I just watched a half-time ad for Barack Obama.  Did the  Obama campaign spring for one of those million dollar Super Bowl ads that we all read about?  Probably not.  It appears, according to press reports, that instead of buying a national ad in the Fox network coverage, the campaign purchased local ads in certain media markets.  And with reasonable access requirements under the Communications Act and FCC rules, he could insist that his commercial get access to the program as all Federal candidates have a right of reasoanble access to all classes and dayparts of station programming.  Moreover, the spot would have to be sold at lowest unit rates.  While those rates are not the rates that an advertiser would pay for a spot on a typical early Sunday evening on a Fox program, they still would be as low as any other advertiser would pay for a similar ad aired during the game.  In this case, by buying on local stations, at lowest unit rates, his campaign apparently made the calculation that it could afford the cost, and that the exposure made it not a bad deal.


Continue Reading The Run-Up to Super Tuesday – Rush, the Super Bowl, Union Ads and an Hour on the Hallmark Channel