political advertising rates

Does a broadcast station need to book a political ad buy for an agency purporting to be representing a candidate, but refusing to reveal who that candidate is? We’ve recently received this question from a number of broadcast stations in a number of states, as agencies seemingly are jockeying to tie up valuable commercial time in advance of what is likely to be a hotly contested election in November. This seems to be happening particularly with stations that have coverage areas that include parts of certain “swing states” in the Presidential election, or in states with crucial Congressional or Senatorial elections. It seems to us that, unless and until you know that there is a real candidate, there is no obligation for a station to book time for a hypothetical candidate or candidate to be named later.

Booking time for an unknown candidate raises numerous issues for a station. How can a station account for the sale of that time in its political file? If it doesn’t know who the candidate is, it can’t place the required information (which includes the candidate’s name) into the political file. Booking time for a political candidate gives rise to equal opportunities obligations, even outside the 45 and 60 days political windows. How can you determine to whom you owe equal time when the station itself doesn’t even know who the candidate is? And, if the agency even refuses to reveal if it is a Federal or state campaign for which it plans to buy time, making time available to an agency on behalf of an unknown candidate that turns out to be a state candidate may cause the station, through the application of equal opportunities, to have to sell time for a race to which it did not intend to provide access, or to open up dayparts to that state race when it did not intend to offer those dayparts to state candidates. In fact, without knowing the candidate, how can the station assess whether the candidate is legally qualified, or that the time is being purchased by an authorized candidate committee? 


Continue Reading What is a Broadcaster to Do When Approached by an Ad Agency Buying Time for an Undisclosed Political Candidate?

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

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


Continue Reading President Obama Declares Candidacy – What Political Broadcasting Rules Should Broadcasters Be Considering Now?

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