While it seems like we just finished the election season, it seems like there is always an election somewhere.  We are still getting calls about municipal and other state and local elections that are underway.  And broadcasters need to remember that these elections, like the Federal elections that we’ve just been through, are subject to the FCC’s equal time (or "equal opportunities") rule.  The requirement that lowest unit rates be applied in the 45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election also apply to these elections.  "Reasonable access," however, does not apply to state and local candidates – meaning that stations can refuse to take advertising for state and local elections (unlike for Federal elections where candidates must be given the right to buy spots in all classes and dayparts on a station), as long as all candidates for the same office are treated in the same way. So stations can take ads for State Senate candidates, and refuse to take ads for city council, or restrict those ads to overnight hours, as long as all candidates who are running against each other are treated in the same way.

One issue that arises surprisingly often is the issue of the station employee who runs for local office.  An employee who appears on the air, and who decides to become a candidate for public office, will give rise to a station obligation to give equal opportunities to other candidates for that same office – free time equal to the amount of time that the employee’s recognizable voice or likeness appeared on the air.  While a station can take the employee off the air to avoid obligations for equal opportunities, there are other options for a station.  See our post here on some of those options.


Continue Reading Reminder: Equal Time and Lowest Unit Rate Rules Apply to State and Municipal Elections

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?

Today’s announcement from John McCain that he is suspending his Presidential campaign to work on issues dealing with the economic bailout, and that he will not participate in Friday’s scheduled Presidential debate if the bailout package has not been enacted, raises an interesting question about the application of the FCC’s equal opportunities rules.  If Barack Obama were to appear at the debate and answer questions, and that appearance was televised, would the stations that carried the debates later be subject to a claim for equal opportunities by the McCain campaign?  Under FCC precedent, the answer would be "yes."  Debates are exempt from equal opportunities because they constitute on-the-spot coverage of a bona fide news event – one of the exemptions from equal opportunities specified in the Communications Act.  However, as we’ve written before, debates were not always considered exempt and, at one time, if all candidates (including all minor party candidates) were not included in the debate, any excluded candidate could demand equal time.  Thus, debates rarely occurred.  In the 1970s, the FCC loosened the rules to permit debates to be covered as news events, even if minor party candidates were excluded, without triggering equal opportunities obligations – if there were reasonable, objective criteria used to determine which candidates could participate.  However, in doing so, the FCC concluded that, if only one candidate showed up for a debate, it was not a true debate, and thus not exempt from the equal opportunities doctrine.

What would this mean if a station was to cover a debate where Obama showed and McCain did not?  If the McCain campaign were to timely request equal opportunities, stations would have to provide to McCain time equal to the amount of time that Obama appeared on screen, and McCain could do anything with that time that he wanted – he would not have to answer questions from the debate moderator.  Thus, traditionally, if only one candidate shows up for a scheduled debate that is supposed to be broadcast, the debate (or at least the broadcast) is canceled.


Continue Reading If John McCain Doesn’t Show Up, Would Equal Opportunites Issues Prevent the Debate from Going On?

Each election season brings new issues for broadcasters. In recent years, broadcasters are more and more frequently dealing with requests for political uses of the a station’s website. For the most part, unlike a broadcast station that is subject to the full panoply of the FCC’s political rules, those rules largely don’t apply to station websites (some FEC rules, will not be discussed here, may apply to websites). About the only informal pronouncement to come out of the FCC on the use of a station website is that, if the website is sold to one candidate as part of a package with broadcast spot time, then the same offer should be made to competitors of the candidate. This is not an application of FCC’s the rules to the Internet, but instead just a restatement of a long-standing FCC policy that, if one advertiser gets extra benefits that come with the purchase of ad time, and those benefits would be of value to a candidate, they should also be offered to the candidate, and that equal opportunities demands that all candidates for the same office be treated alike.

While the freedom from reasonable access, lowest unit rates, and equal time may seem like a boon to broadcasters, that freedom comes with a price. For instance, the “no censorship rule,” which forbids a station from editing the content of a candidate’s spot or rejecting that spot based on its content (unless that spot violates a Federal felony statute), does not apply to Internet spots. Because candidate spots broadcast on a station cannot be censored, the station has no liability for the content of those spots. So the station is immune for libel and slander, or copyright violations, or other sources of potential civil liability for the content of a candidate’s broadcast spots. But since these spots can be censored or rejected on the station’s website, a station could have theoretical liability for the content of the Internet spot even though the broadcaster could run the exact same spot on the air without fear of any liability. For instance, just recently, according to the Los Angeles Times, CBS asked You Tube to remove a McCain spot attacking Senator Obama as the spot used a copyrighted clip of a Katie Couric commentary without permission. Had that spot been running on a broadcast station, the station would have been forbidden from pulling the spot (and would have no liability for the copyright violation).


Continue Reading Political Advertising Rules for Station Websites – Opportunites and Pitfalls

In the last few days before the Super Tuesday series of presidential primaries, efforts are being made across the political spectrum to convince voters to vote for or against the remaining candidates.  With Obama buying Super Bowl ads in many markets, Clinton planning a one-hour program on the Hallmark Channel the night before the primaries, Rush Limbaugh and other conservative radio host attacking McCain, and third-party interest groups and unions running ads supporting or attacking various candidates, a casual observer, looking at this media blitz, may wonder how all these efforts work under the rules and laws governing the FCC and political broadcasting.

For instance, sitting here watching the Super Bowl, I just watched a half-time ad for Barack Obama.  Did the  Obama campaign spring for one of those million dollar Super Bowl ads that we all read about?  Probably not.  It appears, according to press reports, that instead of buying a national ad in the Fox network coverage, the campaign purchased local ads in certain media markets.  And with reasonable access requirements under the Communications Act and FCC rules, he could insist that his commercial get access to the program as all Federal candidates have a right of reasoanble access to all classes and dayparts of station programming.  Moreover, the spot would have to be sold at lowest unit rates.  While those rates are not the rates that an advertiser would pay for a spot on a typical early Sunday evening on a Fox program, they still would be as low as any other advertiser would pay for a similar ad aired during the game.  In this case, by buying on local stations, at lowest unit rates, his campaign apparently made the calculation that it could afford the cost, and that the exposure made it not a bad deal.


Continue Reading The Run-Up to Super Tuesday – Rush, the Super Bowl, Union Ads and an Hour on the Hallmark Channel

The FCC has now joined the Nevada Courts (see our post here) in denying Dennis Kucinich entry into the Presidential debates.  In a decision released this week, the FCC found that they could not force CNN to include Kucinich in its Democratic Presidential Debate, as such an action would violate the First Amendment.  The FCC only has the jurisdiction to determine if Kucinich was entitled to equal opportunities for not being included, and the Commission rejected that claim as well, finding that the carriage of the debate was on-the-spot coverage of a news event, exempt from equal opportunities. 

This decision is what we predicted in our post when the court’s denied Kucinich access to the Nevada Presidential debate.  As we set out in that post, to encourage political debates, the FCC has determined that debates are on-the-spot coverage of news events as long as more than one candidate is included, and the decision as to which candidates to invite is made based on some rational criteria that is not exercised in some discriminatory, partisan fashion.  In this case, the Commission found that CNN’s criteria – that a candidate had to have finished in the top 4 in a previous primary and be polling over 5% in an established national Presidential preference poll were not standards that were being applied arbitrarily for partisan reasons. The Commission concluded that the mere fact that Kucinich was receiving Federal funds and had unique positions on the issues was not enough to conclude that CNN was required to either include him in the debate or provide him equal time.


Continue Reading FCC Rules Against Kucinich Request for Inclusion in CNN Presidential Debate

In a wild series of legal decisions preceding the Democratic Presidential debate in Nevada, a Nevada judge ruled that MSNBC had to include Congressman Dennis Kucinich in its debate, only to be overruled by a decision of the Nevada Supreme Court released less than a hour before the debate was to begin.  Notably, the initial decision was not based on FCC rules, but instead on a breach of contract theory, as FCC precedent seems relatively clear that a Presidential debate sponsor need not include all candidates in a debate for the coverage of that debate by a broadcaster or cable operator to be exempt from the equal opportunities rules enforced by the FCC. 

 The FCC has long recognized that, to promote the coverage of debates on broadcast media, the sponsors need to be able to limit participation in those debates for them to have any meaning.  In some races where there are minimal requirements for being placed on a ballot, there can be dozens of candidates for a particular office.  If all needed to be included in a broadcast debate, the debate would never be broadcast, and the public would not receive the benefit that on-air coverage would provide.  The issue first arose when the equal opportunities rule was adopted, as broadcasters feared that, unless every candidate for a particular office was included in the debate, any broadcaster or cable company carrying the debate would have to give free "equal time" to any candidate that did not participate in the debate. 


Continue Reading Nevada Court Denies Kucinich Right to Participate in Broadcast Debate – Recognizing FCC’s Exclusive Role to Regulate Equal Opportunities in Political Debates

Every day, on almost every television channel, it seems as if you can find a presidential candidate making an appearance – and it’s not just on the Sunday morning political interview programs.  Last week, it was Hillary Clinton on the David Letterman Show (where her husband is scheduled to appear this week).  In the last two weeks, both Barack Obama and John McCain have made the pilgrimage to talk with John Stewart on the Daily Show.  Mike Huckabee seems to be a fixture on the Colbert Report.  And at the end of last week, TNT reportedly stated that, candidacy or not, it would continue to run episodes of Law and Order featuring Fred Thompson.  With all of these appearances of candidates on television, one might wonder if the FCC’s Equal Opportunities (a/k/a the "Equal Time") rules FCC have been repealed.  In fact, it appears that all of these appearances are within exemptions to, or are otherwise not covered by, the Equal Opportunities Doctrine of the FCC. 

That doctrine requires a broadcaster or, in some instances, a cable system, to provide equal opportunities to competing candidates to appear on the air.  In the most common situation, if one candidate buys commercial time on a broadcast station, the station must treat other candidates in the same race equally, and allow them to buy equal amounts of time on the station at equivalent rates to those paid by the first candidate.  In a candidate is given free time, all his or her opponents are entitled to the same amount of free time, if they request it within seven days of the first candidate’s appearance.  However, the statute provides many exemptions, and all of these recent appearances appear to fall within these exemptions. 


Continue Reading Barack Obama and the Daily Show, Hillary Clinton and David Letterman, Fred Thompson and Law and Order – What About Equal Time?

This past week, former Senator Fred Thompson created a committee to explore a run for the Presidency.  In every article written about the former Senator, like one recently run in the Washington Post, mention is made of his current broadcasting career – his role on Law and Order and as a guest host on Paul Harvey’s radio program.  And all the articles assume that the campaign will result in the termination of these roles, and also present issues about the broadcast and cablecast of reruns of Law and Order episodes and old movies in which he appeared.  In some cases, that is true.  In others, it remains to be seen.  But the potential candidacy does offer a good opportunity for a review of the equal time obligations of broadcasters under FCC rules.

"Equal time" or "equal opportunities" require that broadcast stations give treat candidates for the same political race in an even-handed fashion.  If they sell time to one candidate, they have to give the other candidate equal opportunities to buy the same amount of time in programs reaching roughly the same size audience.  If time is provided to a candidate without charge, and the candidate’s on-air appearance is outside of a news or news interview programs and is not part of on-the-spot coverage of a news event, then the broadcaster must make equal time available to the opposing candidate, if that candidate requests it within 7 days of the use by the first candidate.

However, none of these obligations arise until a candidate is legally qualified – essentially when he or she has filed the necessary papers to obtain a place on the ballot in accordance with the governing law of the jurisdiction in which the election will be held.  In Thompson’s case, as he has not even officially announced that he is running, he is not yet a legally qualified candidate, so for the time being, there is no issue with the continued airing of the programs in which he appears. 


Continue Reading Law and Order: Equal Opportunites – The FCC Implications of Fred Thompson’s Possible Presidential Bid