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