We usually think of the FCC as the agency that sets the details of the broadcast disclosure obligations for political candidate’s TV ads. But the Federal Election Commission has its own rules for political advertising that are binding on the candidates, rather than on the stations. But because these ads run on broadcast stations,
It has been almost a year since the FCC adopted rules for an online public inspection file for television stations. This week, the Commission released a Public Notice requesting comments on how the rules are performing – specifically focusing on the online political file. While the Commission’s rules currently require only that the affiliates of the top four networks, in the Top 50 markets, maintain their political files online, the Commission plans to expand that requirement to all television stations in July 2014. But first, it is asking for comments as to how the rules are working so far, whether changes are needed, and perhaps even whether additional information should be required for inclusion in the online political files of TV stations. Comments are also sought on a Petition for Reconsideration filed by various television broadcasters suggesting a different way of complying with the online political file requirements.
Specific questions on which comments are requested include the following:
- Have stations encountered particular obstacles in connection with posting documents to the political file?
- Has online posting become easier over time as station personnel have become more familiar with the process?
- Are there other steps the FCC could take to make the database more user-friendly?
- Are smaller stations prepared to use the online file for their political files starting next year? If not, what needs to be done to help them prepare?
The FCC also asks the public, including political candidates and their representatives, to comment on whether they found it easy to access information in the file, whether improvements could be made, and whether the ability to view the file online has been beneficial. What have interested groups said about the online political file since it was adopted?
Last week, the FCC Commissioners appeared before Congress for an "oversight hearing." In such hearings, Congressmen often raise many different issues that may be on their mind – everything from issues about the administration of the FCC to detailed policy issues. In the hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee last week, one issue arose that broadcasters should monitor carefully to see what develops. During the course of the hearing, the FCC Commissioners were asked why the FCC had not taken steps to make sure that the sponsors of political advertisements were disclosed on the air. While the FCC rules already require disclosure of the sponsor of any ad, and enhanced disclosure for political ads or other "issue ads" on matters of public importance, what were the Senators after in this line of inquiry?
It appears that the Senators were asking the FCC to ask for more information about the source of the money used by political action groups to buy television advertising time on election issues – including the money used by PACs, SuperPACs and the other types of advocacy groups that spent so much money in the last election cycle, and are already beginning to run ads in states that have Senate races that are likely to be hotly contested in 2014. What do the FCC rules currently require?
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?
In recent days we have seen political action committees (PACs) claiming they are "prohibited" from running political ads in primary states due to "new rules" regarding "electioneering communications." As explained below, these claims are incorrect. What they are really doing is trying to avoid the need to reveal the identity of their contributors, following a US District Court decision in March.
Under Federal Election law, an "electioneering communication" is a broadcast, cable or satellite communication that refers to a clearly identified candidate for federal office within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of an election, targeted to 50,000 or more people in the state or district the candidate seeks to represent. For President and Vice Presidential candidates, an "electioneering communication" is one that can be received by 50,000 or more people within 30 days of a state primary or the nominating convention.
By federal statute, sponsors of "electioneering communications" must disclose the names and addresses of each donor who contributed $1000 or more to the sponsoring organization. This is is the provision that led to the US District Court decision at issue.
Failing to meet the obligations set out under the law for required sponsorship identification on Federal political ads could, theoretically, cost candidates significant amounts of money – if stations decide to hold the candidates to the letter of the law. Under the terms of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (“BCRA”), Federal candidates airing television commercials that refer to a competing candidate must specifically state, in the candidate’s own voice, that he or she has approved the ad, while a full-screen image of the candidate appears on the screen. In addition, the name of the sponsoring candidate’s campaign committee must appear in text on the screen for at least 4 seconds at 4 percent of screen height, with sufficient color contrast to make the text readable. If the proper identification is not contained in an ad, the candidates forfeit their right to lowest unit rates for the entire pre-election period (45 days before a primary or 60 days before an election), even with respect to future ads that comply with the rules. In recent days, representatives of Democratic Congressional candidates have reportedly filed complaints that argue that Republican competitors have not complied with the rules in several cases, as their written disclosures did not air for the full four seconds. The challengers argue that television stations must take away LUR for these candidates. While the statute say that the candidates forfeit their rights to such rates, the law is unclear as to whether stations are obligated to deny that rate to candidates after the right has been forfeited – and these cases could resolve this issue.
Television stations undeniably have the power to charge full rates to candidates whose ads have not complied with the requirements of the campaign statute. However, many stations have been reluctant to do so for minor infractions such as the ones identified in this complaint. Why wouldn’t television stations want to charge more money? For several reasons. First, denying one candidate lowest unit rates will no doubt trigger a fly-specking of every commercial by the competitor who filed the complaint against the first candidate, to try to trigger a forfeiture of the second candidate’s right to Lowest Unit Rates, and adjudicating such complaints will no doubt make the station’s political sales process much more difficult and costly to administer. In addition, there is the question of whether, for a minor violation, a station really wants to give the other candidate a political advantage – especially if the candidate who gets charged more more wins the election and gets to vote on laws that may effect business in the future. But can stations legally continue to charge the lowest unit rate even when a candidate has not complied with the legal requirements for sponsorship identification?