Each election season brings new issues for broadcasters. In recent years, broadcasters are more and more frequently dealing with requests for political uses of the a station’s website. For the most part, unlike a broadcast station that is subject to the full panoply of the FCC’s political rules, those rules largely don’t apply to station websites (some FEC rules, will not be discussed here, may apply to websites). About the only informal pronouncement to come out of the FCC on the use of a station website is that, if the website is sold to one candidate as part of a package with broadcast spot time, then the same offer should be made to competitors of the candidate. This is not an application of FCC’s the rules to the Internet, but instead just a restatement of a long-standing FCC policy that, if one advertiser gets extra benefits that come with the purchase of ad time, and those benefits would be of value to a candidate, they should also be offered to the candidate, and that equal opportunities demands that all candidates for the same office be treated alike.

While the freedom from reasonable access, lowest unit rates, and equal time may seem like a boon to broadcasters, that freedom comes with a price. For instance, the “no censorship rule,” which forbids a station from editing the content of a candidate’s spot or rejecting that spot based on its content (unless that spot violates a Federal felony statute), does not apply to Internet spots. Because candidate spots broadcast on a station cannot be censored, the station has no liability for the content of those spots. So the station is immune for libel and slander, or copyright violations, or other sources of potential civil liability for the content of a candidate’s broadcast spots. But since these spots can be censored or rejected on the station’s website, a station could have theoretical liability for the content of the Internet spot even though the broadcaster could run the exact same spot on the air without fear of any liability. For instance, just recently, according to the Los Angeles Times, CBS asked You Tube to remove a McCain spot attacking Senator Obama as the spot used a copyrighted clip of a Katie Couric commentary without permission. Had that spot been running on a broadcast station, the station would have been forbidden from pulling the spot (and would have no liability for the copyright violation).

Continue Reading Political Advertising Rules for Station Websites – Opportunites and Pitfalls

The New York Times ran an article about how certain African-American radio hosts were acting as cheerleaders for the Obama campaign, and contrasting that to past elections where talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh gave a boost to Republican candidates on their programs.  How is it that these programs can take political positions without triggering requirements that opposing candidates get equal time?  Under FCC rules, unless a candidate’ recognizable voice or image is broadcast by a station, there is no right to equal opportunities.  In the past, until the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine by declaring it to be unconstitutional, even without a candidate appearance, the station would have had an obligation to give both sides of a controversial issue of public importance, such as an election, free time to respond to on-air statements by an announcer.  When the doctrine was abolished, stations were free to air pointed programs taking positions on issues, giving rise initially principally to the conservative commentators, and more recently to their more liberal counterparts such as those heard on Air America radio.

The abolition of the Fairness Doctrine also allowed broadcasters to editorialize, even endorsing candidates for political office without having to give the opponent of their favored candidate equal time, just like print media can do. Similarly, a station can take a position on a ballot issue, or on another controversial issue of public importance in their communities without having to provide time to those with opposing viewpoints – allowing stations to fully participate in their communities political life.  Under the Fairness Doctrine, stations even had to give time to those with viewpoints opposed to parties who bought time on a controversial issue if the opponents could not themselves afford to buy time.  The occasional discussion of reviving the Fairness Doctrine ignores these issues.

Continue Reading No Candidate, No Fairness Doctrine and No Equal Time

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

In two decisions released this week by the FCC, here and here, two large broadcast group owners were admonished for failures to comply with the FCC’s EEO rules. In both cases, failures to widely disseminate information about job openings in one market were discovered by the FCC in the course of random EEO audits that selected these stations for review. In both cases, the Commission determined that the violations were serious, and imposed reporting conditions (essentially subjecting the stations to an FCC audit of their EEO annual public file reports every year for the next 3 years). And in each case, the FCC would have fined the stations for their violations, but the Commission moved too slow, as in both cases, license renewals were granted between the time of the violations and the EEO audit.  Under provisions of the Communications Act, the Commission cannot fine a station for action that occurred during a prior renewal term – so the grant of the renewals cut off the possibility of a fine in these cases.

These actions highlight the importance of complying with the Commission’s EEO rules, which we have summarized in our EEO Guide, here. In particular, in both cases, the station groups had not widely disseminated information about job openings, as required by the rules. Wide dissemination requires the use of recruitment sources designed to reach all groups within a community to allow their members to learn about the job openings at the station. The Commission’s aim is to bring into the broadcast workforce employees representing diverse groups within a community rather than hiring all their employees from traditional broadcast sources.  In these cases, the stations had used only corporate websites, on-air announcements, and word of mouth recruiting. No outside sources, or sources reasonably likely to reach the entire community, were used by the broadcasters, hence the admonition and the reporting conditions. 

Continue Reading What a Difference A Renewal Makes – FCC Admonishes Two Broadcasters for EEO Violations, Fines Would Have Followed if Renewals Had Not Recently Been Granted

In the last few weeks, I’ve received several calls from broadcasters about on-air employees who have decided to run for local political office, and the equal time obligations that these decisions can create.  Initially, it is important to remember that equal opportunities apply to state and local candidates, as well as Federal candidates.  And the rules apply as soon as the candidate is legally qualified, even if the spot airs outside the "political windows" used for lowest unit rate purposes (45 days before a primary and 60 days before the general election).  For more information about how the rules apply, see our Political Broadcasting Guide.  In one very recent example of the application of these rules, a situation in Columbia, Missouri has been reported in local newspaper stories concerning a radio station morning show host who decided to run for the local elective hospital board.  To avoid having to give equal time to the host’s political opponents, the station decided to take the employee off the air.  This was but one option open to the station, as set forth in the article, quoting the head of the Missouri Broadcasters Association, who accurately set out several other choices that the station could have taken. 

These choices for the station faced with an on-air host who runs for office include:

  • Obtain waivers from the opponents of the station employee allowing the employee to continue to do his job, perhaps with conditions such as forbidding any discussions of the political race.
  • Allow the candidate to continue to broadcast in exchange for a negotiated amount of air time for the opponents
  • Provide equal time to the opposing candidates equal to the amount of time that the host’s voice was heard on the air (if the opponents request it within 7 days of the host being on the air)
  • Take the host off the air during the election

Other situations have also arisen concerning non-employees, running for office, who may work for another local station, for ad agencies, or for advertisers, but whose voice or picture appears on spots that run on a station.

Continue Reading On-Air Broadcast Stations Employees Who Run for Elective Office – Equal Time for Local Candidates

In the last few days before the Super Tuesday series of presidential primaries, efforts are being made across the political spectrum to convince voters to vote for or against the remaining candidates.  With Obama buying Super Bowl ads in many markets, Clinton planning a one-hour program on the Hallmark Channel the night before the primaries, Rush Limbaugh and other conservative radio host attacking McCain, and third-party interest groups and unions running ads supporting or attacking various candidates, a casual observer, looking at this media blitz, may wonder how all these efforts work under the rules and laws governing the FCC and political broadcasting.

For instance, sitting here watching the Super Bowl, I just watched a half-time ad for Barack Obama.  Did the  Obama campaign spring for one of those million dollar Super Bowl ads that we all read about?  Probably not.  It appears, according to press reports, that instead of buying a national ad in the Fox network coverage, the campaign purchased local ads in certain media markets.  And with reasonable access requirements under the Communications Act and FCC rules, he could insist that his commercial get access to the program as all Federal candidates have a right of reasoanble access to all classes and dayparts of station programming.  Moreover, the spot would have to be sold at lowest unit rates.  While those rates are not the rates that an advertiser would pay for a spot on a typical early Sunday evening on a Fox program, they still would be as low as any other advertiser would pay for a similar ad aired during the game.  In this case, by buying on local stations, at lowest unit rates, his campaign apparently made the calculation that it could afford the cost, and that the exposure made it not a bad deal.

Continue Reading The Run-Up to Super Tuesday – Rush, the Super Bowl, Union Ads and an Hour on the Hallmark Channel

The FCC has now joined the Nevada Courts (see our post here) in denying Dennis Kucinich entry into the Presidential debates.  In a decision released this week, the FCC found that they could not force CNN to include Kucinich in its Democratic Presidential Debate, as such an action would violate the First Amendment.  The FCC only has the jurisdiction to determine if Kucinich was entitled to equal opportunities for not being included, and the Commission rejected that claim as well, finding that the carriage of the debate was on-the-spot coverage of a news event, exempt from equal opportunities. 

This decision is what we predicted in our post when the court’s denied Kucinich access to the Nevada Presidential debate.  As we set out in that post, to encourage political debates, the FCC has determined that debates are on-the-spot coverage of news events as long as more than one candidate is included, and the decision as to which candidates to invite is made based on some rational criteria that is not exercised in some discriminatory, partisan fashion.  In this case, the Commission found that CNN’s criteria – that a candidate had to have finished in the top 4 in a previous primary and be polling over 5% in an established national Presidential preference poll were not standards that were being applied arbitrarily for partisan reasons. The Commission concluded that the mere fact that Kucinich was receiving Federal funds and had unique positions on the issues was not enough to conclude that CNN was required to either include him in the debate or provide him equal time.

Continue Reading FCC Rules Against Kucinich Request for Inclusion in CNN Presidential Debate

In a wild series of legal decisions preceding the Democratic Presidential debate in Nevada, a Nevada judge ruled that MSNBC had to include Congressman Dennis Kucinich in its debate, only to be overruled by a decision of the Nevada Supreme Court released less than a hour before the debate was to begin.  Notably, the initial decision was not based on FCC rules, but instead on a breach of contract theory, as FCC precedent seems relatively clear that a Presidential debate sponsor need not include all candidates in a debate for the coverage of that debate by a broadcaster or cable operator to be exempt from the equal opportunities rules enforced by the FCC. 

 The FCC has long recognized that, to promote the coverage of debates on broadcast media, the sponsors need to be able to limit participation in those debates for them to have any meaning.  In some races where there are minimal requirements for being placed on a ballot, there can be dozens of candidates for a particular office.  If all needed to be included in a broadcast debate, the debate would never be broadcast, and the public would not receive the benefit that on-air coverage would provide.  The issue first arose when the equal opportunities rule was adopted, as broadcasters feared that, unless every candidate for a particular office was included in the debate, any broadcaster or cable company carrying the debate would have to give free "equal time" to any candidate that did not participate in the debate. 

Continue Reading Nevada Court Denies Kucinich Right to Participate in Broadcast Debate – Recognizing FCC’s Exclusive Role to Regulate Equal Opportunities in Political Debates

The FCC’s political broadcasting rules can seem impenetrable and ever-changing, yet the same basic rules have been in place for well over a decade, with only minimal changes in the sponsorship identification and public file requirements mandated by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. With a little attention, memorization, and a guide to

Joining Fred Thompson and Stephen Colbert (see our stories here and here), Presidential candidate Barack Obama appeared briefly on Saturday Night Live last night and delivered that iconic line – "Live From New York, It’s Saturday Night!"  But does his appearance trigger equal opportunities for television stations that aired the program and, if so, would