Today’s announcement from John McCain that he is suspending his Presidential campaign to work on issues dealing with the economic bailout, and that he will not participate in Friday’s scheduled Presidential debate if the bailout package has not been enacted, raises an interesting question about the application of the FCC’s equal opportunities rules.  If Barack Obama were to appear at the debate and answer questions, and that appearance was televised, would the stations that carried the debates later be subject to a claim for equal opportunities by the McCain campaign?  Under FCC precedent, the answer would be "yes."  Debates are exempt from equal opportunities because they constitute on-the-spot coverage of a bona fide news event – one of the exemptions from equal opportunities specified in the Communications Act.  However, as we’ve written before, debates were not always considered exempt and, at one time, if all candidates (including all minor party candidates) were not included in the debate, any excluded candidate could demand equal time.  Thus, debates rarely occurred.  In the 1970s, the FCC loosened the rules to permit debates to be covered as news events, even if minor party candidates were excluded, without triggering equal opportunities obligations – if there were reasonable, objective criteria used to determine which candidates could participate.  However, in doing so, the FCC concluded that, if only one candidate showed up for a debate, it was not a true debate, and thus not exempt from the equal opportunities doctrine.

What would this mean if a station was to cover a debate where Obama showed and McCain did not?  If the McCain campaign were to timely request equal opportunities, stations would have to provide to McCain time equal to the amount of time that Obama appeared on screen, and McCain could do anything with that time that he wanted – he would not have to answer questions from the debate moderator.  Thus, traditionally, if only one candidate shows up for a scheduled debate that is supposed to be broadcast, the debate (or at least the broadcast) is canceled.


Continue Reading If John McCain Doesn’t Show Up, Would Equal Opportunites Issues Prevent the Debate from Going On?

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

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?