legally qualified candidate

This past week’s political news seemed to be all about Donald Trump and his possible run for the Presidency – and his plans to announce his intent to run on the season finale of The Apprentice.  When, a week ago, we wrote about the President declaring his candidacy, there was little interest in our post, and there seemed to be little news attention in general to that announcement.  But when Donald Trump started making noise about his possible Presidential run, and his plans to announce his intent on the season finale of The Apprentice in May, our phones started ringing, asking how can he do that?  My partner David Silverman was quoted in a Huffington Post article, while my analysis was misunderstood in a Hollywood Reporter legal blog (see why I was misunderstood below).  But the question remains – can Trump continue on The Apprentice while signaling his interest in running for President?

In fact, there is no FCC rule that prohibits a broadcaster from giving airtime to a political candidate on any kind of program, as long as they are willing to provide equal time to opposing candidates.  There may be other legal issues involved in giving time to a candidate as it may in effect be a deemed a campaign contribution to the candidate (an issue apparently for PACs as well, as explained by that legal scholar Steven Colbert, here), but the FCC’s equal time rules don’t prohibit the appearance of a candidate on an entertainment program, they only demand that the stations that broadcast the program give equal amounts of time to opposing candidates who ask for it – if the opponents ask for it within 7 days of the candidate’s appearance.  And that is often the first issue – will the opposing candidate ask for it?  None of the Republicans asked when cable networks continued to run episodes of Law and Order featuring Fred Thompson, even after Thompson declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination.  Nor did other candidates request time after there was a parade of candidate appearances on Saturday Night Live during the last election (see our post on this pattern of candidates passing on their equal time rights).  But would a Trump declaration of a candidacy on The Apprentice even face that minimal risk?  Probably not.


Continue Reading Donald Trump May Declare Presidential Candidacy on The Apprentice – FCC Legal Issues?

With the President declaring his candidacy for reelection in 2012, broadcasters thoughts may be turning to that election and the expected flood of money that may come into the political process.  But visions of next year’s elections should not be distracting broadcasters from their current political broadcasting obligations.  I’ve received many calls this year about whether broadcasters need to provide lowest unit rates to candidates in the races that are going on in 2011 – including many municipal elections and some special elections to fill various political posts.  As we have written before, if a station decides to sell time to a political candidate in a local race, that sale must be at the lowest unit charge for the class of time sold during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before the general election.  While state and local candidates need not be afforded the "reasonable access" that applies to Federal candidates, that merely means that stations do not need to sell these candidates any advertising time at all, or that stations may limit the purchase by state and local candidates to only the dayparts during which the station has more inventory.  But once the time is sold to one candidate in a race, most other political rules – including lowest unit charges, equal opportunities and the no censorship rule, all apply to the local candidate’s spots.

With the President now filing to become a candidate, and many Republican candidates likely to be filing soon, what obligations are imposed on stations?  For the most part, there is no effect on the rates to be charged to candidates or their campaign committees – those rates only become effective 45 days before the primaries – so the lowest unit charges for Presidential campaigns likely will not kick in until very late this year, or early next, for the early Presidential primaries and caucuses in states like Iowa and New Hampshire. But, as candidates become legally qualified, there will be reasonable access and equal opportunities obligations that will arise.  Candidates for President can request reasonable access to all classes and dayparts – even outside the 45 and 60 day windows before a primary and general election, respectively.  In the case of a Presidential campaign, a candidate becomes legally qualified in all states once he has become legally qualified in 10 states. There may be few Democrats who are to likely to challenge the President, so equal opportunities will most likely be a major issue only on the Republican side.  And, as we’ve written before, the FCC has determined that most interview programs where the content is under station control – even those that have little news value on the normal day – are deemed "news interview programs" exempt from equal time rules.  Thus, equal time is normally only an issue in making sure that all candidates have equal opportunities to buy spot time, and in those rare circumstances where a candidate appears on a purely entertainment program (e.g. as a character on a scripted TV show) or where the candidate is themselves a host of a broadcast program – and usually stations ensure that the candidates are long gone from hosting programs once they formally declare that they are running for a political office


Continue Reading President Obama Declares Candidacy – What Political Broadcasting Rules Should Broadcasters Be Considering Now?

The New York Times just ran an article on the number of radio and television commentators who are also potential political candidates, speculating on whether the appearance of these candidates on TV and cable talk shows, and on radio programs, give them an advantage in their future political careers.  That perceived TV bump might be most in the news in the potential candidacy of Harold Ford in the Democratic Senate primary in New York, with his appearances on MSNBC (and this past weekend on Meet the Press on NBC, where he was part of a panel to talk about the week’s news, and was then asked about his future political plans).  But it is also evident in the almost daily parade of potential candidates on radio, TV and cable talk programs.  So, one might ask, what are the FCC implications of these appearances?

The week before last, we wrote on this question, in connection with on-air radio or TV performers who actually become candidates, and how a broadcast station should deal with those candidates and the equal opportunities obligations to opposing candidates that arise when these employee-candidates appear on the air.  But the question of when the equal opportunities obligations arise is one that we only touched on.  Under the FCC’s interpretation of the Section 315 of the Communications Act, the equal opportunities obligations arise once you have a legally qualified candidate – one who fulfills all of the obligations that a state imposes for securing a place on the ballot.  Usually, this involves the filing of certain papers, often with petitions signed by a specified number of registered voters, with a state’s Secretary of State by a given deadline.  Once the requirements established by the state have been met, the candidate is legally qualified and equal opportunities attach to any on air appearances outside the context of an exempt program (see our post here about those appearances, principally in news and interview programs, which are exempt from equal opportunities). 


Continue Reading When Potential Candidates Like Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Harold Ford Are On Radio, TV and Cable – FCC Issues?

As we enter the 2010 election season, questions are beginning to arise about broadcast station on-air employees who decide to run for political office, and what a station needs to do about such employees to avoid issues under the FCC political broadcasting rules.  For instance, in Arizona, talk show host (and former Congressman) JD Hayworth recently left his radio program and announced that he was planning to contest John McCain’s reelection by challenging him in the Republican primary.  On a local level throughout the country, on-air station employees are deciding to throw their hats into the political ring.  And, whether that ring is a Federal office like the one that Mr. Hayworth is seeking, or a state or local elective position, whether it be Governor or member of the Board of Education or Water Commission, an announcer-candidate can mean equal time obligations under Section 315 of the Communications Act and under FCC rules for a broadcast station. 

We wrote about this issue last election cycle,here, and the rules have not changed. Once a candidate becomes "legally qualified" (i.e. he or she has established their right to a place on the ballot by filing the necessary papers), equal opportunities rights are available to the opposing candidates.  What this means is that, if the on-air broadcaster who is running for political office stays on the air, any opposing candidate can come to the station and demand equal opportunities within seven days of the date on which the on-air announcer/candidate was on the air, and the opponent would be entitled to the same amount of time in which they can broadcast a political message, to be run in the same general time period as the station employee/candidate was on the air.  So if your meteorologist decides to run for the city council, and he appears on the 6 o’clock news for 3 minutes each night doing the weather, an opposing city council candidate can get up to 21 minutes of time (3 minutes for each of the last 7 days), and that opposing candidate does not need to read the weather, but can do a full political message.  So what is a station to do when an on-air employee decides to run for office?


Continue Reading Leaving the Air to Run For Office – What to Do With The Broadcaster Who Becomes a Candidate

The 2010 political broadcasting season is off to a fast start, with a controversy already erupting in connection with the Illinois Senate race to fill the seat once held by President Obama.  Illinois has one of the first primaries in the nation for the 2010 election, to be held on February 2, 2010.  In that race, Andy Martin, one of the Republican candidates for the open Senate seat that will be vacated by Senator Burris, is reportedly running ads on radio in Illinois stating that the front-runner for the Republican nomination, Mark Kirk, is rumored to be gay, and has many gay staffers, and asking that Kirk clear up questions about his sexuality.  Many stations in Illinois have expressed concern about running an ad from a fringe candidate in the race that makes such a controversial allegation.  Stations that are concerned need to remember that an ad by a legally qualified candidate cannot be censored once a station has agreed to sell time to the candidate.  As we’ve written previously, if the attacking candidate is legally qualified for a place on the primary ballot, as news reports indicate that he is in the Illinois case, then stations cannot censor that ad – and have to run it with these attacks on the front-running candidate, even if the stations do not like the message. 

The Chicago Tribune story about this controversy quotes me as stating that stations can censor a candidate ad if the ad violates a Federal felony statute.  That caveat was added to FCC policy when it was feared that Larry Flint was going to run for Federal political office and run campaign ads that might test the limits of obscenity laws.  More importantly, however, stations should recognize that, because they cannot censor an ad by a candidate’s authorized campaign, the station itself has no liability for the contents of that ad.  The candidate may be sued for libel or defamation (which has occurred in other cases), but the station itself should be immune from liability as it has no choice but to run the ad or violate Federal election laws.  Stations do, however, have the ability to put disclaimers on ads – stating that they are political messages that cannot be censored and do not necessarily reflect the views of the station, but these disclaimers should be applied to all candidates for the same race equally.


Continue Reading Early Flap in Illinois Senate Race Reminds Broadcasters that They Cannot Censor Candidate Ad

The 2010 political broadcasting season is almost upon us, with Texas leading the way.  With the first 2010 primaries on March 2, candidates in Texas are already in windows during which they need to file the paperwork to qualify for a place on the primary ballot.  Once they qualify for that ballot spot, they become "legally qualified candidates

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?

According to press reports, the Obama campaign is contemplating an ad schedule during the upcoming Summer Olympics.  This raises the question of what political broadcasting rules would apply to such a buy.  The Olympics run from August 8 through 24, before the lowest unit rate window for political candidates.  Thus, the Obama campaign is not entitled to lowest unit rates.  Instead, the candidate would only be entitled to a "comparable rate" to what a commercial advertiser in a similar situation would receive.  The campaign would not get frequency discounts that a big Olympics sponsor might get, unless the campaign bought in the same frequency, or other discounts that may apply to larger advertisers.  But the reasonable access provisions of the rules do apply once you have a legally qualified candidate, so it would seem as if at least some political ads would have to be placed in the Olympic programming.  In various political seminars held throughout the country, when this question has been raised, the FCC representatives have consistently said that, given the fact that the Olympics run for such a long period, at least some access must be made available to Federal candidates who are willing to pay the price that the airtime commands.

During the Super Bowl, the Obama campaign bought time, but it was purchased on local stations, not on the network itself (see our post here).  Affiliates of NBC would also have reasonable access issues of their own, were the Obama campaign to approach them directly, or were some local Federal candidate to request time on their stations.  As these stations have less inventory during the Olympics than does the network, the amount of time that would have to be provided would be less (and a candidate need not be given access to the exact time spot that they might request – not everyone can get the coveted spots in certain high profile event’s finals – as long as the access that they are given is reasonable under the circumstances).  But the access rules would apply -so at least some access would have to be given.  Note that in a few states with late primaries for Congress and the Senate, it is possible that there would be Federal candidates entitled to lowest unit rates, even during the Olympics.  State and local candidates, however, have no right of access, so stations would not have to sell them time in the Olympics.


Continue Reading The Politcal Broadcasting Implications of An Olympic Ad Buy

In the hotly contested Democratic Presidential nominating contest, the delegates from Michigan and Florida, which already held Presidential primaries which were labeled as meaningless by the Democratic Party, may become crucial in deciding a winner in the race.  Thus, there have been discussions, particularly in Michigan, of holding another Presidential primary or caucus to award

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