With the lowest unit charge window for the November elections kicking into effect tomorrow (September 5), we thought that it was a good idea to review the basics FCC rules and policies affecting those charges. With each election seemingly breaking spending records from prior cycles, your station needs to be ready to comply with all of the FCC’s political advertising rules. Essentially, lowest unit charges guarantee that, in the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election, candidates get the lowest rate for a spot that is then running on the station in any class of advertising time. Candidates get the benefit of all volume discounts without having to buy in volume – i.e. the candidate gets the same rate for buying one spot as your most favored advertiser gets for buying hundreds of spots of the same class. But there are many other aspects to the lowest unit rates, and stations need to be sure that they get these rules right.

It is a common misperception that a station has one lowest unit rate, when in fact almost every station will have several – if not dozens of lowest unit rates – one lowest unit rate for each class of time. Even on the smallest radio station, there are probably several different classes of spots. For instance, there will be different rates for spots that run in morning drive and spots that run in the middle of the night. Each of these time periods with differing rates is a class of time that has its own lowest unit rate. On television stations, there are often classes based not only on daypart, but on the individual program. Similarly, if a station sells different rotations, each rotation on the station is its own class, with its own lowest unit rates (e.g. a 6 AM to Noon rotation is a different class than a 6 AM to 6 PM rotation, and both are a different class from a 24 hour rotator – and each can have its own lowest unit rate). Even in the same time period, there can be preemptible and non-preemptible time, each forming a different class with its own lowest unit rate. Any class of spots that run in a unique time period, with a unique rotation or having different rights attached to it (e.g. different levels of preemptibility, different make-good rights, etc.), will have a different lowest unit rate.
Continue Reading The Political Window Opens Tomorrow – A Refresher on the Basics of Lowest Unit Charge

A new month in a new year, and a number of new regulatory dates are upon us for broadcasters – and important dates for webcasters also fall in this month.  So now that the holidays are quickly becoming just a foggy memory, it is time to sharply focus on those regulatory obligations that you have to avoid legal issues as the year moves forward.  January 10 brings one deadline for all broadcast stations – it is a date by which your Quarterly Issues Programs lists, setting out the most important issues that faced your community in the last quarter of 2013 and the programs that you broadcast to address those issues, need to be placed in the physical public inspection file of radio stations, and the online public file of TV broadcasters.

Full power TV and Class A TV stations by January 10 also need to have filed with the FCC their FCC Form 398 Children’s Television Reports, addressing the educational and informational programming directed to children that they broadcast.  Also, by that same date, they need to upload to their online public files records showing compliance with the limits on commercials during programming directed to children.
Continue Reading January Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters and Webcasters – Children’s Television Reports, Quarterly Issues Programs List, Webcaster Elections and Minimum Fees, the Return of Lowest Unit Rates and More!

Now that the Democratic and Republican conventions are over and the candidates begin the final sprint to the November 6 elections, the political broadcasting season goes into overdrive. Effective last Friday, lowest unit rates are in effect. In this year which will probably break all records for political spending, is your station ready to comply with all of the political rules? We thought that we’d provide a series of articles on some of the basics of the FCC political broadcasting rules, to make sure that your station is prepared to deal with the most common issues that arise in a political season.  Today, as the lowest unit charges have just kicked in, we’ll hit some of the common questions that we get about these rates.  In coming days, we’ll address other areas of the FCC’s political rules.

Essentially, lowest unit charges guarantee that, in the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election, candidates get the lowest rate  in any class of advertising time for a spot in that class that is then running on the station. Candidates get the benefit of all volume discounts without having to buy in volume – i.e. the candidate gets the same rate for buying one spot as your most favored advertiser gets for buying hundreds of spots of the same class.  But there are so many other aspects to the lowest unit rates, and stations need to be sure that they get these rules right.Continue Reading Political Broadcasting Reminder Part 1 – The Basics of Lowest Unit Charges

At its meeting today, the FCC voted to require that television stations maintain most of their public inspection files online, in a database to be created by the FCC (see the FCC’s Public Notice here).  While the details about this obligation have not yet been released, from the comments at the FCC meeting, much is already evident.   All TV stations will have to post their files to an online server to be maintained by the FCC.  Proposals for new obligations to post information about sponsorship identification and shared services agreements have been dropped, at least for now.  Most documents not already online at the FCC will need to be uploaded within 6 months of the rule becoming effective.  And, in the most controversial action, broadcaster’s political files will need to be posted to the new online database, though in a process that is to be phased in over time.

The political file obligation will apply at first only to affiliates of the Top 4 TV networks in the Top 50 markets.  And only new information for the political file will need to be posted.  Information in the file before the effective date of the order apparently will not need to be posted online, at least not initially.  The requirement for posting the political file online will be reviewed in a proceeding to begin one year after the effective date of the new rules.  As stations outside the Top 50 markets, and other stations in those large markets, will not need to comply with the political file obligations until July 2014, the FCC will be able to reexamine the impact of the disclosure obligations before the compliance obligation for the political file expands to all stations. Continue Reading FCC Votes to Require Online Public File for TV Stations – Rejects Compromise for Political File

While the off-year elections of 2011 are not yet history, the Lowest Unit Rate period for the 2012 Presidential election will soon be upon many stations in the early primary and caucus states.  Last week, Bobby Baker, the head of the FCC’s Office of Political Programming, and I conducted a webinar for 13 state broadcast associations to provide a refresher on the political broadcasting obligations of broadcasters.  The webinar covered all the basics of the political broadcasting rules – including reasonable access, equal opportunities, lowest unit rates, the public file and sponsorship ID obligations, and the issues of potential liability of broadcasters for political advertising not bought by candidates but by PACs, unions and other interest groupsPowerPoint slides from the presentation are available here, and the video of the presentation can be accessed here by members of the state associations that were involved.  Additional information about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules can be found in our Davis Wright Tremaine Guide to Political Broadcasting.

One particular issue came up in the webinar that warrants additional discussion and clarification. Rate issues are always the most difficult to explain, and the questions concerning package rates are among the most confusing.  The FCC has said that stations cannot force a candidate to purchase a package of spots containing multiple ads of different classes.  Instead, stations must break up the price of packages into their constituent spots and, if the package spots are running during a Lowest Unit Charge period (45 days before a primary or Presidential caucus or 60 days before a general election), determine if the spots in that package affect the lowest unit rates of the classes of time represented by advertising spots contained in the package.  For instance, if you sell a package of 10 morning drive spots with a bonus of 2 overnight spots on your radio station for $100, you need to break up the package price and allocate it to the spots from the two classes of time in the package – the morning drive and the overnight spots. So some of that $100 package price gets applied to the 10 morning drive spots (say, for example, $96) and the rest (for example, $4) is assigned as the value of the 2 overnight spots.  Thus, in this package using this allocation, the unit rate for morning drive spots would be $9.60, and the unit rate for overnights would be $2.  You then take these rates, and see if you have sold spots for these classes of advertising time at lower rates.  If so, the package has no effect on your LUR.  If not, the spots in the package may reduce the LUR for one or both classes of time.  In such cases, the determination of which classes’ LUC will be lowered may be affected by the allocation of the package price that you make.Continue Reading A Webinar Refresher on the FCC’s Political Broadcasting Rules – Computing Lowest Unit Rates in Spots Sold as Part of Advertising Packages

Broadcast stations must charge political candidates the lowest unit rate that they charge any commercial advertiser for a comparable advertising spot during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Broadcasters need to remember that this applies to state and local races, as well as Federal campaigns, so those

In the waning days before the mid-term election, we have received many questions about the applicability of the political broadcasting rules to state and local candidates.  In particular, we have seen a number of letters from attorneys representing candidates who are running for state and local offices (everything from Governor to county commissioner or school board representative), who claim that an attack by an opposing candidate is unfounded and that a broadcast station must pull that ad from the air.  Just as is the case with Federal candidates, ads by state candidates cannot be censored by a station.  Thus, except in certain very unusual situations (where the language of the ad would violate some Federal criminal statute, e.g. if it is obscene), a station must air the ad as it was created.  It cannot be rejected because the station disagrees with the content or the tone, and it cannot be pulled even if the opposing candidate believes it to be defamatory.  Because the station cannot censor a candidate’s ad, they have no liability for the content of the ad, i.e. they cannot be held responsible for any defamatory content that it may contain, even if they are on notice of that content.  They cannot censor an ad by a candidate or a candidate’s authorized campaign committee – whether that candidate is running for a Federal, state or local office.

Note that, as we have written many times, this is in contrast to those situations where a candidate complains about an attack ad sponsored by a non-candidate group.  In those cases, the station does have the option of whether or not to run the ad (the no censorship provisions of Section 315 of the Communications Act do not apply).  Thus, if the station is on notice that there is potentially defamatory content in an ad, it must do some investigation of that ad, and make an informed decision about whether or not to allow the ad to continue to run.  If it does not investigate, and continues to run an ad that is defamatory after receiving notice of that fact, in some extreme cases, it could face liability for that defamatory content.Continue Reading Political Broadcasting Reminder – State and Local Candidates Subject to Lowest Unit Charge, No Censorship and Equal Opportunities Rules

While most of the FCC’s political broadcasting rules have remain unchanged for almost 20 years, each year there are a few new wrinkles that arise, and seemingly a few misconceptions that make the rounds among advertising agencies that work with political candidates.  One such misconception that seems to be circulating this year is that an ad for a state or local political candidate does not need to have their voice or picture to be a "use" under FCC rules.  Only "uses" are entitled to lowest unit rates and subject to the no censorship provisions.  For some reason, agencies in several states have tried to convince broadcasters that, as long as a spot has a sponsorship identification at the end (and, for television, a textual sponsorship identification 4% of screen height for 4 seconds), that spot is a "use."  But that is not correct.  A "use" requires that the recognizable voice or picture of a candidate be in the spot – and that is true even for spots for state and local candidates.  Some advertisers may be confused by the change in Federal laws (now itself almost a decade old) that required that Federal candidates identify themselves in their ads and personally state that they approved the message of the ad,  Perhaps some of the advertisers think that, because the law for Federal candidate is so detailed, and because it does not specifically cover state candidates (though several state laws now have imposed the same obligation on state and local candidates in their states), there is no requirement at all for state and local candidates to appear in their ads.  But they are not correct – for a spot to be a use, a candidate him or herself must have a recognizable voice or image in that ad.

While it is not illegal for a station to run a state or local candidate’s ad when the ad does not have a candidates voice in it, there are important ramifications for the station if the spot is not a "use".  First, without the candidate’s voice or picture, the ad is not entitled to lowest unit rates.  There has been some controversy, not settled by the Federal Election Commission and perhaps subject to interpretations under state election commission rules, about whether a station that charges a candidate lowest unit rates for a spot not entitled to such rates may be making a corporate campaign contribution to that candidate, which is prohibited under Federal law and in most states.  Most importantly for the stations, if the spot does not have the candidates voice or picture in it, the spot is not covered by the ‘No censorship" provision of Section 315 of the Communications Act.  That provision prohibits a station from rejecting a candidate’s ad based on its content.  But, because the station can’t reject the ad based on its content, the station has no liability for the contents of the ad.  Conversely, if the ad does not have the appearance by the candidate in it, then the station is free to reject it based on its content, and thus the station could theoretically have liability for the content of the ad.  As we approach a heated election season where stations don’t want the obligation to check the veracity of every claim made by one candidate about an opposing candidate in an attack ad, stations should be careful to insure that spots purchased by candidates are in fact uses, containing the recognizable voice or picture of the candidate – even for state and local candidates. Continue Reading Remember that Political Ads By State and Local Candidates Need to Have Candidate’s Recognizable Voice or Picture to Be a Use

The DISCLOSE Act recently passed the Committee in the House of Representatives charged with dealing with it, without many of the provisions that most worried broadcasters and cable companies.  We recently wrote about the DISCLOSE Act legislation proposed in both the House and Senate in response to the Citizens United Supreme Court case (which freed

In reaction to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision invalidating restrictions on corporate spending on advertising and other messages explicitly endorsing or attacking political candidates (about which we wrote here), new legislation, called the DISCLOSE Act,  has just been introduced in both houses of Congress seeking to mitigate the perceived impact of the Court’s decision.  While the announced goal of the legislation is aimed at disclosure of the individuals and companies who are trying to impact the political process, the draft legislation, if adopted would have significant impact on broadcasters and cable companies, including potentially extending lowest unit rates and reasonable access to Federal political party’s campaign committees (and not just the candidates themselves).  The draft legislation also proposes lower Lowest Unit Rates in political races where there are significant independent expenditures, more disclosure by broadcasters through an on-line political file, and even mandates for audits by the FCC of the rates charged by television stations to political candidates.  The language could also be read as an expansion of the current applicability of the political rules to cable television – applying reasonable access to cable systems and lowest unit rates and equal opportunities to cable networks.  As Congressional leaders are proposing to move this legislation quickly (with votes before July 4) so that it can be in place for the coming Congressional elections, broadcasters and cable companies need to carefully consider the proposals so that they can be discussed with their Congressional representatives before the bills are voted on by Congress.

While much of the bill is intended to force disclosure of those sponsoring ads and otherwise trying to influence the political process, the portions of the bill that amend provisions of the Communications Act include the following:

  • An extension of Reasonable Access to require that broadcasters give reasonable access not just to Federal political candidates, but also to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  In recent years where the Democratic and Republican Congressional Campaign Committees have been big buyers of broadcast time.  The extension of reasonable access to these groups could put even greater demands on broadcast advertising time on stations in markets with hot races, as stations could not refuse to provide access to "all classes of time and all dayparts", as required by the reasonable access rules.  This could crowd out other advertisers, and even make it harder for ads for state elections (as state and local candidates have no reasonable access rights) in states where there are hotly contested races.
  • Extends the Reasonable Access requirements to require reasonable access to "reasonable amounts of time purchased at lowest unit rates."  The purpose of this change is not clear, as all political time must be sold to candidates at lowest unit rates in the 60 days before a general election and the 45 days before a primary. 
  • Extends the requirement for Lowest Unit Rates to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  Currently, the lowest unit charges apply only to the candidate’s campaign committees, not to political parties.  Under the proposed language, LUC rates would also apply to the parties, and to groups like the Republican and Democratic National Campaign Committees
  • Extends the "no censorship" provisions to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  This change may be a positive for broadcasters.  As we have written before, a broadcast station cannot censor a candidate’s ad.  But, as they have no power to reject a candidate’s ad based on its contents, they have no liability should that ad contain material that could potentially be defamatory or otherwise subject the station to liability.  This proposed language would extend the no censorship rule to cover ads from Federal political parties, so that stations would not have liability for those ads either.  As many of the hardest hitting attack ads often come from these committees, if this legislation were to pass, stations would not have to worry about evaluating the truth or falsity of the committee’s ads, as they would have no liability for the contents of the ads as they would be forbidden by law from rejecting the ads based on their contents.
  • Provides for a lower Lowest Unit Rate in races where there are independent expenditures by any group of more than $50,000.  If a corporation or other group spends $50,000 in any political race, then all stations would be required to charge all candidates in the race the lowest charge made for "the same amount of time in the last 180 days" – not just the lowest charge for the same class of time as is then currently running on the station.  First, this would force stations to look back 6 months to determine their lowest unit rates.  For a primary election in June or July, rates in the doldrums of January or February could set the June political rates.  Moreover, the legislation does not state that it would look at the lowest rate for the same "class" of time over the previous 180 days, but instead it talks only about the same "amount" of time.  It is unclear if this is an intentional attempt to make stations sell prime time spots at overnight rates, but the current language of the bill seems to avoid the traditional distinctions on spots being sold based on their class.
  • Forbids the preemption of advertising by a legally qualified candidate or national committee except for unforeseen circumstances.  This provision may well be intended to force stations to sell candidates advertising at their lowest nonpreemptible rates, and then treat the spots as they would much more expensive non-preemptible fixed position spots
  • Requires the FCC to conduct random audits during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Audits would have to be conducted as follows: 
    • 6 of the Top 50 TV markets
    • 3 of the markets 51-100
    • 3 of the markets rates 101-150
    • 3 markets below 150
    • Audits would be required of the 3 largest networks, 1 independent TV network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.  The language here, too, seems odd, as the requirements for audits are for "networks" of broadcast, cable and radio stations, not for local operators, and for an "independent television network" which would seem to be an inherently contradictory term – if a station is truly an independent, it is not affiliated with a network, so how can the FCC audit an "independent television network"?  It is unclear of whether this provision is requiring audits of the networks themselves, or of affiliates of the networks in the markets in which audits must be conducted. 
  • Requirements that stations keep on their website information about all requests for the purchase of broadcast time by candidates, political parties or other independent political groups. Right now, the rules specifically do not require that political files be kept online.

Continue Reading The Impact of the Proposed DISCLOSE Campaign Reform Act on Broadcasters and Cable Operators – Lowest Unit Rates and Reasonable Access for Political Parties, On Line Political File, FCC Audits and More