Earlier this week, the Campaign Legal Center and Issue One, two political “watchdog” organizations, filed FCC complaints against two Georgia TV stations, alleging violations of the rules that govern the documents that need to be placed into a station’s public inspection file regarding political “issue advertising” (see their press release here, with links to the complaints at the bottom of the release). FCC rules require that stations place into their public files information concerning any advertising dealing with controversial issues of public importance including the list of the sponsoring organization’s chief executive officers or directors. Section 315 of the Communications Act requires that, when those issues are “matters of national importance,” the station must put into their public file additional information similar to the information that they include in their file for candidate ads, including the specifics of the schedule for the ads including price information and an identification of the issue to which the ad is directed. The complaints allege that, while the stations included this additional information in their public file, the form that was in the public file stated that the sponsors of the ads did not consider the issues to be ads that addressed a matter of national importance, despite the fact that they addressed candidates involved in the recent highly contested election for an open Congressional seat in the Atlanta suburbs.

Section 315(e)(1)(b) states that an issue of national importance includes any advertising communicating any message directed to “any election to Federal office.” The stations against which the complaints were filed used the NAB form that asks political and issue advertisers to provide the information necessary for the public file, as do many broadcast stations. The FCC does not require that the NAB form be used but, as it is designed to gather the required information, many stations use it. Some simply take the form and place it into their public file with a copy of their advertising order form specifying the rates and advertising schedule and assume that their FCC obligation is complete. But, here, the complaints allege that the advertisers, in response to a question on the form that asks whether the advertising was directed to an issue of national importance, checked the box that said that the ad was not a Federal issue ad despite the fact that the ad addressed candidates or issues involved in the election for the open Congressional seat. The form was apparently then simply put into the public file in that way without additional notation or correction by the station.
Continue Reading Complaints Filed Against TV Stations for Public File Violations on Political Issue Ads

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

Press Reports (such as this one) have stated that the Obama campaign has purchased half-hour blocks of time on at least NBC and CBS to broadcast a political infomercial to be aired at 8 PM Eastern time on October 29.  Some reports indicate that other broadcast and cable networks will also be broadcasting the same program.  Did the networks have to sell him the time?  In fact, they probably did.  Under FCC rules, Federal political candidates have a right of reasonable access to "all classes" of time sold by the station in all dayparts.  This includes a right to program length time, a right that was affirmed by the US Court of Appeals when the networks did not want to sell Jimmy Carter a program length commercial to announce the launch of his reelection bid.  Because of this right, the networks often had to sell Lyndon LaRouche half hour blocks of time to promote his perennial candidacy for President. 

How often do networks (or stations) have to make such time available?  They only have the right to be "reasonable." While what is reasonable has not been defined, the amount of time that will be requested will probably be limited by the cost of such time.  Even were it not limited by cost, the FCC would probably not require that a broadcaster sell such a prime time block more than once or twice during the course of an election – and given the late stage that we are in the current election, it seems unlikely that more than one such request would have to be honored during these last few weeks of the campaign.  Stations do not need to give candidates the exact time that they requested – so the rumored reluctance of Fox to sell this precise time to the Obama campaign because it might conflict with the World Series would probably be reasonable – if they offered him the opportunity to buy a half hour block at some other comparable time.   


Continue Reading Obama Buys A Half Hour of Time on Broadcast Networks – What FCC Legal Issues are Involved?