In the last few days, much has been written about the decision of a national radio broadcaster to prohibit the host of a country music radio program from airing an interview of a Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg on a nationally syndicated program. This decision has prompted many questions as to when the FCC’s equal opportunities (sometimes referred to as “equal time”) rules apply to appearances of a candidate on a broadcast station.

Two years ago, we wrote about a Declaratory Ruling issued by the FCC’s Media Bureau which addressed many of these issues. In that decision, the FCC determined that a syndicated television program, “Matter of Fact with Fernando Espuelas,” was an “exempt program” which would not give rise to equal opportunities. The FCC rules state that bona fide news interview programs are exempt programs, meaning that appearances on the program by legally qualified candidates for public office would not give rise to equal opportunities for other candidates to get free time on the stations which aired the program. In reviewing that request for declaratory ruling, or in considering whether any program would be exempt, what does the FCC consider?
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The 2020 presidential elections already loom large, with one of the over 20 Democratic candidates for the Presidential nomination seemingly appearing on whatever TV talk show you tune into on your TV set. With the first debate among these candidates scheduled for late June, it seems like we have a real election already underway – and it is time for broadcasters to start thinking about their political broadcasting obligations under FCC rules and the Communications Act, and beginning to make plans for compliance with those rules.

Stations in Iowa and other early primary states have already been receiving buys from Presidential candidates, PACs, and other third-party groups. That spending is sure to increase in the latter part of the year as these early primaries and caucuses are scheduled early in 2020. What should stations in Iowa and in other states be thinking about now to get ready for the 2020 elections?

We have written about some of the issues that broadcasters should already be considering in our Political Broadcasting Guide (which we plan to update shortly). Obviously, one of the primary issues is lowest unit rates – as those rates become effective 45 days before the primaries (or before any caucus which is open to members of the general public). Thus, the lowest unit charge windows for Presidential campaigns will start for the political contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in December, and roll across the country early next year as the other primaries and caucuses draw near. In addition to our Political Broadcasting Guide, we wrote about other issues you should be considering in determining your lowest unit rates here.
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This week’s political primaries in Texas are but the first of many more election contests that will occur between now and November. Already, we are receiving client calls about the political rules, how they should be applied, and what stations should be considering in anticipation of the upcoming elections. I’ve discussed the general FCC issues to be considered by broadcasters in many different ways. In January, I conducted a webinar for two state broadcast associations on these issues, following a similar webinar that I conducted with the head of the FCC’s office of political programming back in November for about 20 additional state associations. The slides from the most recent webinar are available here. Our firm also has available a Guide to Political Broadcasting, here, that provides information about many topics that come up in this area every year. But, with the election still months away, and in many states primaries that don’t occur until the summer, are there issues that broadcasters should be considering today?

Yes – there are many such issues that broadcasters should be considering immediately. As we wrote here prior to the last Presidential election, it is important to start planning early for an election. As that article details, and as set out in our Political Broadcasting guide, there is much planning for lowest unit rates that needs to take place now – before the actual windows (45 days before the primary and 60 days before the general election) in which those rates apply. Stations are likely selling advertising schedules that will run during the windows later this year, and they are putting together advertising packages that will be offered to commercial advertisers during the window. Consideration needs to be given now as to how that advertising will be treated to avoid unwanted lowest unit rate implications during the window.
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It seems like about this time as we begin to near the end of the year that broadcasters contemplate their future. And it seems like that brings many to contemplate moving from behind the microphone to being in front of it – by running for public office. Perhaps because next year will likely be a very active one with Congressional elections and elections in many states, I have had a number of calls from broadcasters in the last few weeks asking what they should do with the on-air employee who is contemplating making that move by jumping into politics. We have written about this issue many times before, including coverage of when well-known local or national personalities have contemplated runs for office – see our stories here, here and here. In 2010, we wrote an article that provided a discussion of this issue, which remains valid today, and which I edited and reposted in 2016 here. An updated version of that article is below.

Having an on-air employee who runs for political office – whether it is a federal, state or local office – does give rise for equal opportunities for competing candidates whenever that employee’s recognizable voice or picture appears on the air, even if the personality never mentions his or her candidacy on the air, and even if they appear in what is otherwise an exempt program (e.g. a newscaster who runs for office triggers equal time when he delivers the news even though a candidate’s appearance as a subject of that news program would be exempt). Stations need to take precautions to avoid the potential for owing significant amounts of free time to competing candidates, where those candidates can present any political message – if they request it within 7 days of the personality’s appearance on the air.
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In odd years like 2017, most broadcasting stations don’t think about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules. But they should – both for special elections to fill open seats in Congress, and for state and local political offices.  Recently, I have received a number of calls about elections to fill seats in Congress that were vacated by Congressmen appointed to positions in the Trump administration. For instance, the race in Georgia to fill HHS Secretary Tom Price’s seat has received much national attention. But there is also a race being fought now to fill Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s seat in Montana. Obviously, for Federal elections like these, broadcast stations serving these districts need to offer candidates the full panoply of candidate rights – including reasonable access, lowest unit rates, and equal opportunities. But in other parts of the country where there are no special Congressional elections, there are all sorts of political races taking place in this off year and, as we have written before, most of the political rules apply to these state and local electoral races as well as to the few Federal elections that are taking place to fill open Congressional seats.

Some of these races will be high-profile, like the governor’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey and several big-city mayoral races. Some races may be much more locally focused on elections to school boards or town councils. Stations need to be prepared. Candidates for state and local elections are entitled to virtually all of the political broadcasting rights of Federal candidates – with one exception, the right of reasonable access which is reserved solely for Federal candidates. That means that only Federal candidates have the right to demand access to all classes and dayparts of advertising time that a broadcast station has to sell. As we wrote in our summary of reasonable access, here, that does not mean that Federal candidates can demand as much time as they want, only that stations must sell them a reasonable amount of advertising during the various classes of advertising time sold on the station. For state and local candidates, on the other hand, stations don’t need to sell the candidates any advertising time at all. But, if they do, the other political rules apply
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This has been an unusual political year, as the number of political broadcasting legal issues that have arisen seems far smaller than in past election cycles. Perhaps broadcasters are all on top of the issues this year, or maybe the questions that often arise in connection with attack ads simply pale in comparison to some of the non-advertising attacks that take place every day in the news and on other political-themed broadcast and cable programming. But one question that has come up repeatedly in these last few weeks before the election has been one about local candidates – usually running for state or municipal offices – who appear in advertisements for local businesses that they own or manage. Often times, these individuals will routinely appear in a business’ ads outside of election season, and the candidate simply wants to continue to appear on their business’ ads during the election as well. What is a station to do?

While we have many times written about what happens when a broadcast station’s on-air employee runs for office (see, for instance, our articles here, here and here), we have addressed the question less often about the advertiser who is also a candidate. If a candidate’s recognizable voice or, for TV, image appears on a broadcast station in a way that is not negative (e.g. it is not in an ad attacking that candidate), outside of an exempt program (in other words outside of a news or news interview program which, as we wrote here, is a very broad category of programming) that appearance is a “use” by the political candidate. That includes “uses” even well outside the political sphere, so Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were pulled from TV when he was running for office, as were any re-runs of The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice featuring Donald Trump. So, an appearance by a candidate in a commercial for his or her local business is a “use” which needs to be included in a station’s political file (providing all the information about the sponsor, schedule and price of the ad that you would for any pure political buy). But that does not necessarily mean that a station needs to pull the ad from the air.
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In recent weeks, tragic events in Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge and elsewhere engender thoughts for the victims, their families and their communities.  Events like these have become all too common, and certain normal routine has developed, with broadcast stations devoting substantial amounts of airtime to coverage of the event until some new story takes away their attention. While the events are ones that cause us to think about those involved, and perhaps the broader political and policy issues that each raises, broadcasters also need to consider, to some degree, the legal implications of the coverage of such events and the questions that are sometimes raised about the FCC issues that can arise in such coverage.  Why isn’t EAS invoked?  Can we interview political candidates about the events?  What other legal issues should broadcasters be considering in connection with events like these?

One question that seemingly arises whenever events like these occur is why isn’t EAS used more often?  Even during 9-11, there was no activation of the EAS system, and there were some questions of why that was.  In fact, EAS is not intended to provide a source for blanket coverage of events like those that occurred recently, or even of those with broader national implications like the events of 9-11.  There are no reporters or information-gathering sources at the other end of the EAS alert system putting together updates on the news and ready to start providing substantive coverage of any news event.  Instead, EAS is meant to provide immediate alerts about breaking, actionable events – like the approach of a severe storm, the need to evacuate a particular area in the advance of a fire or after a tanker spill or, in its origins during the Cold War, the possibility of a nuclear attack.  In any of these events, it is not EAS, but the broadcasters themselves and other journalists who are the ones that need to provide the in-depth coverage of events as they occur.  While the FCC is looking at revamping the EAS system in many different proceedings, the basic workings of the system do not change.  A weather alert or a Presidential address on a catastrophic event may occur through EAS, but the full coverage of that event, with all the developments and details, is going to come from the broadcasters themselves, not from Federal, state or local EAS alerts.
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Yesterday, the FCC’s Media Bureau issued a Declaratory Ruling, deciding that a syndicated television program, “Matter of Fact with Fernando Espuelas,” was a bona fide news interview program – meaning that appearances on the program by legally qualified candidates for public office would not give rise to equal opportunities (or “equal time” as it is often called). In looking at such request the FCC looked at the following factors – (1) the program was regularly scheduled, (2) its content is controlled by the station or program supplier, and (3) the decisions as to the inclusion of candidates are based on judgments as to the newsworthiness of the appearance and not for political purposes. If these factors are met, the program is considered a bona fide news interview program, and candidates can appear without competitors having the right to claim equal opportunities, and without a candidate’s appearance being considered a “use” that needs to be noted in the public files of stations that carry the program.

In addition to news interview programs, newscasts and on-the-spot coverage of a news event are also “exempt programs” where candidate appearances do not constitute “uses” giving rise to equal opportunities or public file obligations. Over the years, as we wrote here and here, the FCC has been more and more liberal in its interpretations of what constitutes a news or news interview program. It is no longer just the evening newscast on a station and the boring Sunday morning talking heads news interview program that qualify. Instead, the FCC has recognized that people get their “news” from all sorts of different kinds of broadcast programs, and the FCC has determined that any program that regularly features newsmakers, where the program content is in the hands of the producers and where the program’s guests are selected for newsworthiness, and not to promote a particular political agenda, can be an exempt news or news interview program. So the FCC has ruled that a host of programs that may not look like hard news, from the Today Show to Entertainment Tonight, to the Phil Donahue program to even the Howard Stern radio show, could be exempt news interview programs where a candidate’s appearance did not trigger equal time. If they cover some aspect of the news, and regularly feature news makers, they are likely to be determined to be an exempt program.
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Last week, we posted a reminder about the obligations for stations to provide equal opportunities for competing candidates to buy time on broadcast stations, and also talked about how the equal time provisions do not apply to bona fide news and news interview programs. Almost immediately, I received several questions about on-air employees who decide to run for political office, and how they are treated for purposes of the equal opportunities rule. Having an on-air employee who runs for political office – whether it is a federal, state or local office – does give rise for equal opportunities for competing candidates whenever that employee’s recognizable voice or picture appears on the air, even if the personality never mentions his or her candidacy on the air, and even if they appear in what is otherwise an exempt program (e.g. a newscaster who runs for office triggers equal time when he delivers the news even though a candidate’s appearance as a subject of that news program would be exempt). Stations need to take precautions to avoid the potential for owing significant amounts of free time to competing candidates, where those candidates can present any political message – if they request it within 7 days of the personality’s appearance on the air.

We have written about this issue many times before, including coverage of when well-known local or national personalities have contemplated runs for office – see our stories here, here and here. In 2010, we wrote an article that provided a discussion of this issue, which remains valid today. An edited version of that article is below.
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