A bill introduced in the House of Representatives last week proposes that the FCC be required to amend its sponsorship identification rules to require not just the name of the sponsor of an ad addressing “a controversial issue of public importance,” but also the names of any “significant donors” to the
In the last few weeks, I’ve been asked several times by broadcasters whether an ad should be considered an "issue ad." Usually, the ad in question deals with some sort of faintly controversial issue, and the broadcaster seems torn about how to classify the ad. In many ways, the answer is almost irrelevant as, other than some public file obligations, whether or not an ad is an issue ad has little practical significance. Issue ads are not entitled to special rates – lowest unit rates are reserved for candidate ads. They are not entitled to special placement in broadcast schedules. As there is no Fairness Doctrine, there isn’t even a requirement that you treat both sides of an issue in the same fashion (except perhaps, where a Fairness obligation may still arise if the issue being discussed is a candidate in an election, when the last remnant of Fairness, the Zapple Doctrine, has not officially been declared dead). So why worry about whether or not something is an issue ad?
The principal reason is the public file. Commission rules require that the sponsor of an issue ad be identified in a broadcaster’s public file, along with the sponsor’s principal officers or directors. This is required for any ad dealing with a controversial issue of public importance. The ad does not need to deal with a political issue, or one to be considered by a government body. Any controversial issue of public importance merits the public file treatment. For ads dealing with a "federal issue", one to be considered by the US Congress, any Federal administrative agency or any other branch of the United States government, additional disclosures need to be made in the file (which we have listed before), setting out all the information that you would need to provide with respect to a candidate ad – including the price paid for the ad and the schedule on which the ad will run.
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.