Now that the Democratic and Republican conventions are over and the candidates begin the final sprint to the November 6 elections, the political broadcasting season goes into overdrive. Effective last Friday, lowest unit rates are in effect. In this year which will probably break all records for political spending, is your station ready to comply with all of the political rules? We thought that we’d provide a series of articles on some of the basics of the FCC political broadcasting rules, to make sure that your station is prepared to deal with the most common issues that arise in a political season.  Today, as the lowest unit charges have just kicked in, we’ll hit some of the common questions that we get about these rates.  In coming days, we’ll address other areas of the FCC’s political rules.

Essentially, lowest unit charges guarantee that, in the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election, candidates get the lowest rate  in any class of advertising time for a spot in that class that is then running on the station. 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 so many other aspects to the lowest unit rates, and stations need to be sure that they get these rules right.


Continue Reading Political Broadcasting Reminder Part 1 – The Basics of Lowest Unit Charges

On March 16, David Oxenford spoke at a Continuing Legal Education Seminar on the FCC’s Political Broadcasting rules. The panel, sponsored by the Federal Communications Bar Association, included another attorney in private practice, an attorney from the NAB, Bobby Baker (the head of the FCC’s Political Broadcasting office), and a media time buyer for political candidates. The panel not only discussed the basic rules governing political advertising on broadcast stations, but also dealt with topics including the impact of the Citizen’s United case on FCC rules (see our post here on that topic), issues of what to do if a political spot contains objectionable content, and how stations should deal with complaints from candidates about the content of political ads. Many of these topics and others are discussed in the Davis Wright Tremaine Political Broadcasting Guide, available here.  The discussion also provided a useful reminder on certain aspects of the law regarding how much broadcast stations can charge political candidates for the purchase of advertising time on broadcast stations.

At the session, the political time buyer complained that broadcast stations were trying to charge political candidates premium prices for purchases of advertising time outside the “political window.” During the window, 45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election, stations are required to charge candidates the “lowest unit rate” charged for any spot of the same class of time run on the broadcast station. Outside the window, broadcasters do not have to charge lowest unit rates but, as the buyer reminded the audience, they do still need to charge “comparable rates” to what the station charges advertisers for the same type of purchase. So, while candidates do not get volume discounts without buying in volume (as they do during the window), if they do buy in the required volume, they should get the same discount that other advertisers get. Stations should not “mark up” the rates charged to political candidates outside of the window.


Continue Reading Reminders About Rates to Be Charged to Candidates At Communications Law Seminar

As we enter the waning days of this election season, where some candidates get more desperate and the attack ads get sharper, broadcasters are often faced with requests that they pull an ad created by a candidate.  Claims are made that the ad contains untrue claims about an opponent or that the ad contains copyrighted material used without permission.  What is a station to do?  When the ad is an ad purchased by a candidate or their authorized committee, and contains a "use" by the purchasing candidate (a use being a spot where the purchasing candidate’s voice or likeliness appears on the spot) the broadcaster is forbidden from censoring that ad.  Essentially, that means that the candidate can say just about anything in their ad (as long as it does not violate a Federal felony statute), and the FCC’s rules prohibit the broadcaster from refusing to air the ad based on its content.  But, because the station cannot censor the ad, it has no liability for the contents of that ad.  This is in contrast to ads by third parties (e.g. advocacy groups, unions, political parties and others not specifically authorized by the candidate), where the broadcaster theoretically has liability for the content of a political ad (see our post on that subject, here).

Two recent cases illustrate the issue.  In one, according to press reports, in a race for the sole seat in the House of Representatives representing the state of North Dakota, one candidate has claimed that the ads of the other misrepresent the positions of that candidate.  The candidate being attacked has asked that the spots be pulled from the air, while the candidate running the spots has refused to pull them.  Even if requested by the candidate being attacked, and even if the ad is in fact false, broadcasters cannot pull one candidate’s ad if that candidate wants to continue to run it.


Continue Reading Broadcasters Prohibited From Censoring a Candidate’s Ad

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?

As the dates for the first Presidential primaries draw near, more and more stories appear in the press about attack ads growing in importance.  These ads are coming both from the candidates themselves trying to draw distinctions with their opponents, and from third party, supposedly independent, groups either attacking or supporting one of the candidates.  See, for instance, the recent story in the Washington Post on the increase in third party ads.  These ads have raised political issues on the campaign trail as to whether negative campaigns work, and as to how independent of the candidates the third party expenditures really are.  They also raise legal issues for broadcasters.  Whenever there are attack ads that are run on a broadcast station, there are complaints from the candidate being attacked about how unfair the criticism is.  Broadcasters have to deal with these complaints, and the sponsor of the ads makes a huge difference in the broadcaster’s responsibilities to check the truth of the statements made.    As we explain in our Political Broadcasting Guide, broadcasters may not censor the content of a candidate ad, and thus are exempt from any liability for the content of that ad.  But attacks contained in third party ads may require the broadcaster to do some investigation into the claims being made to make sure that they avoid legal liabilities.

For ads run by a candidate or his or her authorized committee, the Communications Act forbids a broadcaster (or cable company that chooses to sell time to political candidates) from censoring the candidate’s message.    Because of the no censorship rule, the Courts have ruled that broadcasters are immune from any sort of liability for defamation that may arise from the content of the ad.  Thus, broadcasters cannot reject a candidate’s message based on its content (with the possible exception of cases where that content would violate a criminal law, as opposed to just creating some civil liability), and need not take any action in response to a complaint by an opposing candidate that the ad contains incorrect or distorted information.


Continue Reading As Presidential Races Heat Up, So Do the Attack Ads – Legal Issues For Broadcasters Dealing With Third Party Political Ads