Since the election of President Obama and the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, the fears of the return of the Fairness Doctrine have been highlighted on talk radio, online, by emails and in conversations throughout the broadcast industry.  Even though President Obama had stated that he was not in favor of its return, and even liberal commentators have gone so far as to make fun of conservatives for suggesting that there might be an attempt to bring it back (see our post on Keith Olbermann lambasting George Will for making such a suggestion).  Yet this week the doctrine was back into the national discussion, coming up in a press conference with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs (who joked it off without dismissing the rumors) and in a speech by FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell.  What’s all the fuss about anyway?

To really understand the debate, it’s important to understand what the Fairness Doctrine is and what it is not.  We’ve seen many politicians referring to the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time Rule in the same sentence, as if they are part and parcel of the same thing. In fact, they are different issuesEssentially, the Fairness Doctrine simply required that stations provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public importance.  The Fairness Doctrine never required "equal time" in the sense of strict equality for each side of an issue on a minute for minute basis.  In talk programs and news coverage, a station just had to make sure that both points of view were presented in such a way that the listener would get exposure to them.  How that was done was in a station’s discretion, and the FCC intervened in only the most egregious cases.


Continue Reading Fairness Doctrine Back in the News (Part 1) – What’s It all About?

Press Reports (such as this one) have stated that the Obama campaign has purchased half-hour blocks of time on at least NBC and CBS to broadcast a political infomercial to be aired at 8 PM Eastern time on October 29.  Some reports indicate that other broadcast and cable networks will also be broadcasting the same program.  Did the networks have to sell him the time?  In fact, they probably did.  Under FCC rules, Federal political candidates have a right of reasonable access to "all classes" of time sold by the station in all dayparts.  This includes a right to program length time, a right that was affirmed by the US Court of Appeals when the networks did not want to sell Jimmy Carter a program length commercial to announce the launch of his reelection bid.  Because of this right, the networks often had to sell Lyndon LaRouche half hour blocks of time to promote his perennial candidacy for President. 

How often do networks (or stations) have to make such time available?  They only have the right to be "reasonable." While what is reasonable has not been defined, the amount of time that will be requested will probably be limited by the cost of such time.  Even were it not limited by cost, the FCC would probably not require that a broadcaster sell such a prime time block more than once or twice during the course of an election – and given the late stage that we are in the current election, it seems unlikely that more than one such request would have to be honored during these last few weeks of the campaign.  Stations do not need to give candidates the exact time that they requested – so the rumored reluctance of Fox to sell this precise time to the Obama campaign because it might conflict with the World Series would probably be reasonable – if they offered him the opportunity to buy a half hour block at some other comparable time.   


Continue Reading Obama Buys A Half Hour of Time on Broadcast Networks – What FCC Legal Issues are Involved?

The New York Times ran an article about how certain African-American radio hosts were acting as cheerleaders for the Obama campaign, and contrasting that to past elections where talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh gave a boost to Republican candidates on their programs.  How is it that these programs can take political positions without triggering requirements that opposing candidates get equal time?  Under FCC rules, unless a candidate’ recognizable voice or image is broadcast by a station, there is no right to equal opportunities.  In the past, until the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine by declaring it to be unconstitutional, even without a candidate appearance, the station would have had an obligation to give both sides of a controversial issue of public importance, such as an election, free time to respond to on-air statements by an announcer.  When the doctrine was abolished, stations were free to air pointed programs taking positions on issues, giving rise initially principally to the conservative commentators, and more recently to their more liberal counterparts such as those heard on Air America radio.

The abolition of the Fairness Doctrine also allowed broadcasters to editorialize, even endorsing candidates for political office without having to give the opponent of their favored candidate equal time, just like print media can do. Similarly, a station can take a position on a ballot issue, or on another controversial issue of public importance in their communities without having to provide time to those with opposing viewpoints – allowing stations to fully participate in their communities political life.  Under the Fairness Doctrine, stations even had to give time to those with viewpoints opposed to parties who bought time on a controversial issue if the opponents could not themselves afford to buy time.  The occasional discussion of reviving the Fairness Doctrine ignores these issues.


Continue Reading No Candidate, No Fairness Doctrine and No Equal Time

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

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