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.