The FCC Equal Time rule (or more properly the "equal opportunities" doctrine) requires that, when a broadcast stations gives one candidate airtime outside of an "exempt program" (essentially news or news interview programs, see our explanation here), it must give the opposing candidate equal time if that opposing candidate requests the time within 7 days of the first candidate’s use.  Cable systems are also subject the requirement for local origination programming, and many have surmised that, faced with the proper case, the FCC would determine that cable networks are also likely to be covered by the doctrine.  While the FCC has extended the concept of an exempt program to cover all sorts of interview format programs, allowing Oprah, The View, Leno and Letterman and the Daily Show to have candidates on the air without the fear of equal time obligations, the rule still theoretically applies to scripted programming.  Yet in this election, we have seen candidates appear on scripted programs repeatedly, seemingly without fear of the equal time obligations.  Early in the election season, cable networks ran Law and Order with Fred Thompson without any equal time claims being made.  All through the election, candidates seem to have made themselves at home on Saturday Night Live, culminating with Senator McCain’s appearances on the SNL programs on Saturday Night and the SNL special run on election eve.  Yet through it all, stations have not seemed reluctant to run these programs, and candidates have not seemed to show any interest in requesting any equal time that may be due to them.  This seems to raise the question as to whether there remains any vitality to the equal opportunities doctrine.

This is not just a case of candidates deciding not to appear on a program that they don’t like because they don’t want to appear in a program with that particular format, as the equal time rules free the candidates from format restrictions.  Thus, had Senator Obama sought equal time for McCain’s appearances on SNL, he would have been entitled to an amount of time equal to the amount of time that McCain appeared on camera, and Obama could have used that time for any purpose that he wanted, including a straight campaign pitch.  He would not have had to appear in an SNL skit just to get that time.


Continue Reading Does McCain on Saturday Night Live Signal the End of Equal Time?

In two races for the US Senate, candidates have filed defamation lawsuits against their opponents charging that attack ads go over the line from political argument to actionable falsehoods.  However these suits ultimately play out, they demonstrate the premise that we’ve written about before, that broadcast stations are prohibited by FCC rules and the Communications Act from censoring the content of a candidate’s ad, and because they cannot censor the content of a candidate’s ad (or refuse to run a candidate’s ad because of the content of that ad), stations are immune from liability that might otherwise arise from that content.  But the candidates being attacked can sue their opponents for the contents of those ads, and that is just what has happened in the North Carolina and Minnesota Senate races.

In North Carolina, according to press reports, Democratic candidate Kay Hagan has filed suit against the campaign of Elizabeth Dole for a commercial that accused Hagan of being associated with a group called Godless Americans – an ad ending with a woman’s voice that some interpreted as being that of Hagan (when it was in fact not) saying "there is no God."  In Minnesota, Senator Norm Coleman has reportedly filed a lawsuit against Al Franken’s campaign claiming that Franken campaign ads improperly claimed that Coleman was rated one of the four most corrupt Senators and that he was getting an improperly financed apartment in Washington DC. 


Continue Reading Senate Candidates File Lawsuits For Defamation in TV Commercials – But Not Against the TV Stations

As we enter the waning days of this election season, where some candidates get more desperate and the attack ads get sharper, broadcasters are often faced with requests that they pull an ad created by a candidate.  Claims are made that the ad contains untrue claims about an opponent or that the ad contains copyrighted material used without permission.  What is a station to do?  When the ad is an ad purchased by a candidate or their authorized committee, and contains a "use" by the purchasing candidate (a use being a spot where the purchasing candidate’s voice or likeliness appears on the spot) the broadcaster is forbidden from censoring that ad.  Essentially, that means that the candidate can say just about anything in their ad (as long as it does not violate a Federal felony statute), and the FCC’s rules prohibit the broadcaster from refusing to air the ad based on its content.  But, because the station cannot censor the ad, it has no liability for the contents of that ad.  This is in contrast to ads by third parties (e.g. advocacy groups, unions, political parties and others not specifically authorized by the candidate), where the broadcaster theoretically has liability for the content of a political ad (see our post on that subject, here).

Two recent cases illustrate the issue.  In one, according to press reports, in a race for the sole seat in the House of Representatives representing the state of North Dakota, one candidate has claimed that the ads of the other misrepresent the positions of that candidate.  The candidate being attacked has asked that the spots be pulled from the air, while the candidate running the spots has refused to pull them.  Even if requested by the candidate being attacked, and even if the ad is in fact false, broadcasters cannot pull one candidate’s ad if that candidate wants to continue to run it.


Continue Reading Broadcasters Prohibited From Censoring a Candidate’s Ad

The American Issues Project has recently started running a controversial new television ad attacking Barrack Obama for his connections to former Weather Underground figure William Ayers.  The text of the ad is reported here.  While reportedly some cable outlets (including Fox News) have refused to air the ad, numerous broadcast stations are also wondering what the legal implications of running the ad may be.  We have already seen many other attack ads being run by third-party groups – including political parties, long-standing activist groups like Move On.org, as well as from new organizations like American Issues Project which have seemingly been formed recently.  As the use of such ads will no doubt increase as we get closer to the November election, it is important that broadcasters understand the issues that may arise in connection with such ads under various laws dealing with political broadcasting.  Legal issues that must be considered arise not only under FCC rules, but also potentially in civil courts for liability that may arise from the content of the ad.  Broadcast stations are under no obligation to run ads by third party groups, and stations have a full right to reject those ads based on their content.  This is in contrast to ads by Federal candidates, who have a right of reasonable access to all broadcast stations, and whose ads cannot be censored by the stations.  As a candidate’s ad cannot be censored, the station has no liability for its contents.  In contrast, as the station has the full discretion as to whether or not it will run a third-party ad, it could have liability for defamation or other liabilities that might arise from the content of such ads that it decides to accept and put on the air.  

The standards for proving defamation (libel and slander) of a public figure are high, but if the ad does contain some clearly false statements, the standard could in fact be met.   Basically, to have liability, the station needs to run an ad containing a false statement either knowing that the ad is untrue or with "reckless disregard" for the truthfulness of the statements made.  This is referred to as the "malice standard."  Essentially, once a station is put on notice that the ad may be untrue (usually by a letter from the candidate being attacked, or from their lawyers),  the station needs to do their own fact checking to satisfy themselves that there is a basis for the claims made or, theoretically, the station could itself be subject to liability for defamation if the claims prove to be untrue.  A few years ago, some TV stations in Texas ended up having to pay a candidate because they ran an ad by an attack group that was shown to contain false statements, and the ad was run even after the candidate complained that the statements were untrue.  These determinations are often difficult to make as the ad’s creators usually have hundreds of pages of documentation that they say supports their claims, while the person being attacked usually has documentation to refute the claims.  Thus, the determination as to whether or not to run the ad is a decision that each station needs to make after consultation with their lawyers, and after careful review of the spot and the backing documentation.


Continue Reading Independent Groups Start Running Presidential Attack Ads – What Are the Legal Implications for Broadcasters?

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

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

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

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