2007 – the year of the television actor who decides to become a Presidential candidate.  We’ve already written about the issues under the FCC’s political broadcasting rules, particularly the equal opportunity doctrine, with the candidacy of Law and Order’s Fred Thompson, resulting in NBC replacing him on as the on-air District Attorney of New York City.  Now, Comedy Central television host Stephen Colbert has announced his candidacy for the nomination for President – albeit only as a native son in his home state of South Carolina.  While some cynical observers might conclude that the Colbert action is only a bid to get publicity and press for his new book (just think of all the publicity that he’s getting from this blog entry – Stephen, we want our commission on all the books you sell because of the promotion you get here), his candidacy does present a useful illustration of a number of issues that arise for broadcasters and other FCC regulatees subject to the political broadcasting rules – particularly issues that arise when a station on-air employee runs for political office.  Questions that are raised include when a employee becomes a legally qualified candidate, does the candidate’s appearance on a bona fide news interview program exempt the station from equal opportunities obligations, and the amount and kind of time that is due to opposing candidates should they request equal time.

First, the question of a "legally qualified candidate."  This is important as the on-air appearance of a planned candidate does not give rise to equal time until that individual becomes a "legally qualified candidate."  For most elections, the candidate becomes legally qualified when they file the necessary papers to qualify for a place on the ballot for the election in which they plan to run, or if they actively pursue an write-in candidacy for an office for which they are eligible.  Until they are legally qualified, no matter how much they say they are running, their appearances do not give rise to equal opportunities.  One example of this occurred years ago, when Howard Stern was campaigning for Governor of New York on his morning radio program in New York City.  No equal opportunity issues arose as Stern never filed the required papers to qualify for a place on the ballot with the New York Secretary of State.

However, in Presidential elections, in addition to the usual manner of qualification, a candidate who is qualified in 10 states is deemed qualified in all states.  In addition, a Presidential candidate can become "legally qualified" for purposes of the FCC rules merely by making a substantial showing of a bona fide candidacy (e.g. having a campaign headquarters, making speeches, distributing campaign literature,  and issuing press releases).  So, if Mr. Colbert is out in South Carolina holding campaign rallies and distributing literature in support of his candidacy, he could be deemed a legally qualified candidate before filing the necessary papers (though his recent statement on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me that his road to the Presidency ends in South Carolina may undercut the bona fides of his campaign.  Perhaps that admission will be retracted when he appears on Meet the Press tomorrow).  But, for the other Presidential candidates who are running in all states, participating in debates and engaging in other campaign activities, they are probably legally qualified throughout the entire country now, even though the filing of the papers for a place on the New Hampshire ballot, the first primary, are not due until early November.


Continue Reading Stephen Colbert, Equal Opportunities and the Case of the Candidate Host

Every day, on almost every television channel, it seems as if you can find a presidential candidate making an appearance – and it’s not just on the Sunday morning political interview programs.  Last week, it was Hillary Clinton on the David Letterman Show (where her husband is scheduled to appear this week).  In the last two weeks, both Barack Obama and John McCain have made the pilgrimage to talk with John Stewart on the Daily Show.  Mike Huckabee seems to be a fixture on the Colbert Report.  And at the end of last week, TNT reportedly stated that, candidacy or not, it would continue to run episodes of Law and Order featuring Fred Thompson.  With all of these appearances of candidates on television, one might wonder if the FCC’s Equal Opportunities (a/k/a the "Equal Time") rules FCC have been repealed.  In fact, it appears that all of these appearances are within exemptions to, or are otherwise not covered by, the Equal Opportunities Doctrine of the FCC. 

That doctrine requires a broadcaster or, in some instances, a cable system, to provide equal opportunities to competing candidates to appear on the air.  In the most common situation, if one candidate buys commercial time on a broadcast station, the station must treat other candidates in the same race equally, and allow them to buy equal amounts of time on the station at equivalent rates to those paid by the first candidate.  In a candidate is given free time, all his or her opponents are entitled to the same amount of free time, if they request it within seven days of the first candidate’s appearance.  However, the statute provides many exemptions, and all of these recent appearances appear to fall within these exemptions. 

Continue Reading Barack Obama and the Daily Show, Hillary Clinton and David Letterman, Fred Thompson and Law and Order – What About Equal Time?

This past week, former Senator Fred Thompson created a committee to explore a run for the Presidency.  In every article written about the former Senator, like one recently run in the Washington Post, mention is made of his current broadcasting career – his role on Law and Order and as a guest host on Paul Harvey’s radio program.  And all the articles assume that the campaign will result in the termination of these roles, and also present issues about the broadcast and cablecast of reruns of Law and Order episodes and old movies in which he appeared.  In some cases, that is true.  In others, it remains to be seen.  But the potential candidacy does offer a good opportunity for a review of the equal time obligations of broadcasters under FCC rules.

"Equal time" or "equal opportunities" require that broadcast stations give treat candidates for the same political race in an even-handed fashion.  If they sell time to one candidate, they have to give the other candidate equal opportunities to buy the same amount of time in programs reaching roughly the same size audience.  If time is provided to a candidate without charge, and the candidate’s on-air appearance is outside of a news or news interview programs and is not part of on-the-spot coverage of a news event, then the broadcaster must make equal time available to the opposing candidate, if that candidate requests it within 7 days of the use by the first candidate.

However, none of these obligations arise until a candidate is legally qualified – essentially when he or she has filed the necessary papers to obtain a place on the ballot in accordance with the governing law of the jurisdiction in which the election will be held.  In Thompson’s case, as he has not even officially announced that he is running, he is not yet a legally qualified candidate, so for the time being, there is no issue with the continued airing of the programs in which he appears. 

Continue Reading Law and Order: Equal Opportunites – The FCC Implications of Fred Thompson’s Possible Presidential Bid