on air performer running for office

In odd years like 2013, most broadcasting stations don’t think about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules. But they should – both for special elections to fill open seats in Congress, and for state and local political offices. This week, the news has been full of stories about next week’s special election for Congress in South Carolina, pitting former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford against Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of TV host Stephen Colbert. Obviously, for a Federal election like that for the Congressional seat they are competing to fill, broadcast stations serving the district they are seeking to serve need to offer candidates the full panoply of candidate rights – including reasonable access, lowest unit rates, and equal opportunities. But in other parts of the country, as well, there are all sorts of political races taking place in this off year and, as we have written before, most of the political rules apply to these state and local electoral races as well as to the few Federal elections that are taking place to fill open Congressional seats.

Candidates for state and local elections are entitled to virtually all of the political broadcasting rights of Federal candidates – with one exception, the right of reasonable access which is reserved solely for Federal candidates. That means that only Federal candidates have the right to demand access to all classes and dayparts of advertising time that a broadcast station has to sell. As we wrote in our summary of reasonable access, here, that does not mean that candidates can demand as much time as they want, only that stations must sell them a reasonable amount of advertising during the various classes of advertising time sold on the station. For state and local candidates, on the other hand, stations don’t need to sell the candidates any advertising time at all. But, if they do, the other political rules apply


Continue Reading Reminder – Most FCC Political Rules Apply to Off-Year Elections for State and Local Offices

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune demonstrates that the FCC’s Equal Opportunities requirements, as embodied in Section 315 of the Communications Act, apply to candidates for state and local elective office as well as to those for Federal office. We have written before about this obligation of stations to provide Equal Opportunities (sometimes referred to as “Equal Time“) to all competing candidates for the same office, yet many stations seem to be confused about their obligations as they apply to state and local political races – such as a race for mayor. While the reasonable access provisions of the FCC rules (which we summarized here), require that stations must make available time to Federal candidates (and Federal candidates only) if they request advertising time for their campaigns, if stations voluntarily make time available to a state or local candidate, then equal opportunities apply to all of the competing candidates in that same state or local race. In the case written about in the Tribune, a former Chicago Bear, an on-air host of a sports program, was forced off the air when he decided to run for mayor of a Chicago suburb and his opponent indicated that he would seek equal time from the station if the candidate continued to do his program.

This case also demonstrates several other aspects of the political rules. First, the local election is not until April, yet the station recognized that the equal opportunities rule kicks in as soon as you have a legally qualified candidate – one who has filed the necessary paperwork to run for an office. The application of the equal opportunities rule is not limited to the 45 days before a primary or the 60 days before a general election (those windows apply only to the application of the lowest unit charges that have to be made available to candidates – state and local as well as Federal candidates). See our summary of the lowest unit charge obligations here.  Once a candidate is qualified, even outside of the “political window”, equal opportunities apply.


Continue Reading Sportscaster Running for Mayor In Chicago Suburb Taken Off the Air – Illustrating that the Equal Opportunities Rule Applies to State and Local Candidates

Now that we are in the political window, we’re doing a series on the basics of the FCC’s political broadcasting rules. On Monday, we covered lowest unit charges. Today’s topic is equal opportunities. Many think of this as a straight-forward issue – just requiring that you provide equal time to competing candidates. But the nuances are what makes equal opportunities much more complicated.

At its most basic level, stations are supposed to treat competing candidates in the same way. Most people think of the issues arising to the extent that stations need to give time to all candidates for an office when they give any candidate air time. In most cases, the free airtime given by stations is not an issue, as there are many programs and appearances by candidates that are exempt from equal time. For instance, the appearance of a candidate in a regularly scheduled bona fide news or news interview program, or in on-the-spot coverage of a news event, is exempt from equal time. As we’ve written before many times (e.g. here and here), that exemption has been broadened to include any program on a station that is editorially under the control of the station, that does not use time for a partisan purpose (but uses some good faith quasi-journalist or newsworthiness discretion as to who to include in the program), and which regularly covers issues in the station’s service area. The exemption has been interpreted to include programs as diverse as Entertainment Tonight, The Howard Stern Show, and Phil Donahue. For most station, any program that features talk (whether it be a radio morning show or a local TV program), and which from time to time interviews newsmakers, can also interview candidates without having to deal with equal time issues. Thus, concerns about giving free equal time usually only arise when a candidate appears in some scripted entertainment program (like in the days that Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were pulled from TV stations whenever they ran for office), or perhaps in a sports program (though the recent appearances of Presidential candidates in football pre-game shows demonstrates that, even in some sports programs, the interview of a candidate may not give rise to any equal time issue). But there are other places that the equal opportunities doctrine is still important.


Continue Reading Political Broadcasting Update Part 2 – Equal Opportunities

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?