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