On January 18, the lowest unit charge window for Presidential primaries or caucuses begins in Super Tuesday states including Alabama, American Samoa (D), Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia.  The LUC window opened on January 15 for South Carolina’s Democratic primary and will open on January 23 for stations in Puerto Rico.  Soon behind, on January 25, lowest unit charge windows for presidential contests open in Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota (D), and Washington State.  The window opens on January 27 in the US Virgin Islands and West Virginia. January 29th is the opening of the window for contests in Guam (R), N. Mariana Islands (D) and Wyoming (R).

In these windows, when broadcasters sell time to candidates for ads in connection with the races to be decided on these dates, they must sell them at the lowest rate that they charge commercial advertisers for the same class of advertising time running during the same time period. For more on issues in computing lowest unit rates, see our articles herehere and here (this last article dealing with the issues of package plans and how to determine the rates applicable to spots in such plans), and our Political Broadcasting Guide, here.
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This weekend, the New York Times ran an article seemingly critical of Facebook for not rejecting ads  from political candidates that contained false statements of factWe have already written that this policy of Facebook matches the policy that Congress has imposed on broadcast stations and local cable franchisees who sell time to political candidates – they cannot refuse an ad from a candidate’s authorized campaign committee based on its content – even if it is false or even defamatory (see our posts here and here for more on the FCC’s “no censorship” rule that applies to broadcasting and local cable systems).  As this Times article again raises this issue, we thought that we should again provide a brief recap of the rules that apply to broadcast and local cable political ad sales, and contrast these rules to those that currently apply to online advertising.

As stated above, broadcast stations and local cable systems cannot censor candidate ads – meaning that they cannot reject these ads based on their content.  Commercial broadcast stations cannot even adopt a policy that says that they will not accept ads from federal candidates, as there is a right of “reasonable access” (see our article here, and as applied here to fringe candidates) that compels broadcast stations to sell reasonable amounts of time to federal candidates who request it.  Contrast this to, for instance, Twitter, which decided to ban all candidate advertising on its platform (see our article here).  There is no right of reasonable access to broadcast stations for state and local candidates, though once a station decides to sell advertising time in a particular race, all other rules, including the “no censorship” rule, apply to these ads (see our article here).  Local cable systems are not required to sell ads to any political candidates but, like broadcasters with respect to state and local candidates, once a local cable system sells advertising time to candidates in a particular race, all other FCC political rules apply.  National cable networks (in contrast to the local systems themselves) have never been brought under the FCC’s political advertising rules for access, censorship or any other requirements – although from time to time there have been questions as to whether those rules should apply.  So cable networks, at the present time, are more like online advertising, where the FCC rules do not apply.
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While political broadcasting never seems to be totally off the airwaves, the 2020 election season is about to click into high gear, with the window for lowest unit rates to begin on December 20 for advertising sales in connection with the January Iowa caucuses. That means that when broadcasters sell time to candidates for ads to run in Iowa, they must sell them at the lowest rate that they charge commercial advertisers for the same class of advertising time running during the same time period. For more on issues in computing lowest unit rates, see our articles here, here and here (this last article dealing with the issues of package plans and how to determine the rates applicable to spots in such plans), and our Political Broadcasting Guide, here.

The beginning of the LUR (or LUC for “lowest unit charge”) window in Iowa is but the first of a rapid many political windows that will be opening across the country as the presidential primaries move across the country. These windows open 45 days before the primary election (or caucus, in states where there is a caucus system that is open to the public for the selection of candidates) and 60 days before general elections. For the Presidential election, New Hampshire of course comes next, with their LUR window opening on December 28.   January will bring the opening of a slew of LUR windows for states with primaries and caucuses in late February and early March, including all of the Super Tuesday states. But it is important to remember that these are not the only LUR windows that broadcasters will have to observe in 2020.
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It seems like every other week, there is a story about an online media giant making changes in their rules that govern political advertising on their platform – and being either praised or condemned for doing so. We recently wrote about the controversy over Facebook deciding to not fact-check candidate ads, and how Congress itself requires by statute that broadcast stations take that same position. Broadcast stations are not allowed to censor ads from legally qualified candidates so, except in very limited circumstances where the ads may be criminal in nature (and not where they might just give rise to civil claims, like in the case of defamation or copyright infringement), broadcasters cannot reject ads based on their content. The right of a person being defamed in an ad for redress of any civil claim they may have is against the candidate who sponsored the ad, not against the broadcaster. Last week brought the news that Twitter has decided to ban political ads from its platform. Broadcasters, on the other hand, have no ability to ban ads for Federal candidates, as Congress has legislated a right of access to the airwaves where broadcasters cannot refuse to run political advertising from any Federal candidate.

That right of reasonable access, written into Section 312 of the Communications Act, requires that broadcasters give Federal candidates access to all classes of advertising time sold on a broadcast station, and that access be provided in all parts of the broadcast day. See our post here for more information about that reasonable access requirement, and our post here on the limited exception accorded for special events with limited advertising inventory (like the Super Bowl), where the provision of ads to one side might be problematic as there would be no opportunity for an opposing candidate to find an equivalent opportunity to advertise, and because of the potential disruption to commercial advertising on these stations given the limited availability of advertising breaks in such programs.
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While next year’s federal elections are already receiving most of the publicity, I’ve been getting a surprising number of calls about elections this November. While most broadcast stations don’t think about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules in odd numbered years, they should – particularly in connection with state and local political offices.  There are elections for governor in November in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi, and all sorts of state and local elections in different parts of the country. As we have written before, most of the political rules apply to these state and local electoral races so broadcasters need to be paying attention.

Whether the race is for governor or much more locally focused, like elections for state legislatures, school boards or town councils, stations need to be prepared. Candidates for state and local elections are entitled to virtually all of the political broadcasting rights of Federal candidates – with one exception, the right of reasonable access which is reserved solely for Federal candidates. That means that only Federal candidates have the right to demand access to all classes and dayparts of advertising time that a broadcast station has to sell. As we wrote in our summary of reasonable access, here, that does not mean that Federal candidates can demand as much time as they want, only that stations must sell them a reasonable amount of advertising during the various classes of advertising time sold on the station. For state and local candidates, on the other hand, stations don’t need to sell the candidates any advertising time at all. But, if they do, the other political rules apply
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This week’s political primaries in Texas are but the first of many more election contests that will occur between now and November. Already, we are receiving client calls about the political rules, how they should be applied, and what stations should be considering in anticipation of the upcoming elections. I’ve discussed the general FCC issues to be considered by broadcasters in many different ways. In January, I conducted a webinar for two state broadcast associations on these issues, following a similar webinar that I conducted with the head of the FCC’s office of political programming back in November for about 20 additional state associations. The slides from the most recent webinar are available here. Our firm also has available a Guide to Political Broadcasting, here, that provides information about many topics that come up in this area every year. But, with the election still months away, and in many states primaries that don’t occur until the summer, are there issues that broadcasters should be considering today?

Yes – there are many such issues that broadcasters should be considering immediately. As we wrote here prior to the last Presidential election, it is important to start planning early for an election. As that article details, and as set out in our Political Broadcasting guide, there is much planning for lowest unit rates that needs to take place now – before the actual windows (45 days before the primary and 60 days before the general election) in which those rates apply. Stations are likely selling advertising schedules that will run during the windows later this year, and they are putting together advertising packages that will be offered to commercial advertisers during the window. Consideration needs to be given now as to how that advertising will be treated to avoid unwanted lowest unit rate implications during the window.
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The FCC this week published a Small Business Compliance Guide for companies looking to take advantage of the FCC’s elimination of the main studio rules and the studio staffing requirements associated with those rules (see our articles here and here summarizing the rule changes). The Compliance Guide points out that stations looking to eliminate their main studios still must maintain a local toll-free telephone number where residents of the community served by the station can call to ask questions or provide information to the licensee. The Guide also references the requirement that access to the public file must be maintained. While, by March 1, all broadcast stations (unless they have obtained a waiver) will have their public files online (see our article here), it is possible that some stations may have a remnant of their file still in paper even after the conversion date. “Old political documents” (documents dealing with advertising sales to candidates, other candidate “uses,” and issue advertising) that were created before the date that a station activates its online file for public viewing need not be uploaded but can be kept in a paper file for the relevant holding period (generally two years). If the station decides not to upload those old political documents, or closes its main studio before they have gone live with their online public file, they will need to maintain a paper file in their community of license. The Guide also mentions how Class A TV stations, which are required to show that they originate programming from their local service area, will be treated since they will no longer have a legally mandated main studio. But are there questions that the Guide does not address?

We think that there are, and that broadcasters who are considering doing away with their main studio need to consider numerous other matters. First, and most importantly, the obligation for a station to serve its local community with public interest programming remains on the books. So stations need to be sure that they are staying in touch with the local issues facing their communities, and they need to address those issues in their local programming. Addressing these issues needs to be documented in Quarterly Issues Programs lists which are the only legally-mandated documents that demonstrate how a station has served its community. There are other issues to consider as well.
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In odd years like 2017, most broadcasting stations don’t think about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules. But they should – both for special elections to fill open seats in Congress, and for state and local political offices.  Recently, I have received a number of calls about elections to fill seats in Congress that were vacated by Congressmen appointed to positions in the Trump administration. For instance, the race in Georgia to fill HHS Secretary Tom Price’s seat has received much national attention. But there is also a race being fought now to fill Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s seat in Montana. Obviously, for Federal elections like these, broadcast stations serving these districts need to offer candidates the full panoply of candidate rights – including reasonable access, lowest unit rates, and equal opportunities. But in other parts of the country where there are no special Congressional elections, there are all sorts of political races taking place in this off year and, as we have written before, most of the political rules apply to these state and local electoral races as well as to the few Federal elections that are taking place to fill open Congressional seats.

Some of these races will be high-profile, like the governor’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey and several big-city mayoral races. Some races may be much more locally focused on elections to school boards or town councils. Stations need to be prepared. Candidates for state and local elections are entitled to virtually all of the political broadcasting rights of Federal candidates – with one exception, the right of reasonable access which is reserved solely for Federal candidates. That means that only Federal candidates have the right to demand access to all classes and dayparts of advertising time that a broadcast station has to sell. As we wrote in our summary of reasonable access, here, that does not mean that Federal candidates can demand as much time as they want, only that stations must sell them a reasonable amount of advertising during the various classes of advertising time sold on the station. For state and local candidates, on the other hand, stations don’t need to sell the candidates any advertising time at all. But, if they do, the other political rules apply
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With the broadcast and cable news (and the monologs of TV talk show hosts) already dominated by discussions of the 2016 elections, broadcasters thoughts may be turning to that election and the expected flood of money that may come into the political process.  We are, after all, only two months away from the first ballots in Iowa and New Hampshire. But dreams of big political spending should not be distracting broadcasters from thinking about their political broadcasting obligations under FCC rules and the Communications Act, and from making plans for compliance with those rules.  I’ve already conducted one seminar on political broadcasting obligations with the head of the FCC’s Office of Political Broadcasting, several months ago, for the Iowa Broadcasters Association, and we will be doing another, a webcast for about 20 state broadcast associations on December 17 (hosted by the Michigan Broadcasters, see their announcement here). Check with your state broadcast association to see if they are participating in the webcast, as we should be covering many of the political broadcasting legal issues of importance to broadcasters.

Stations in Iowa have been receiving buys from Presidential candidates and PACs and other third-party groups since this past summer, and that spending is sure to increase in these last few weeks before the 2016 start of the primaries and caucuses. What should stations in Iowa and in other states be thinking about now to get ready for the 2016 elections?
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In odd numbered years like 2015, most broadcast stations don’t think about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules. But they should – and we have been receiving many calls from clients about the perhaps surprising number of elections that are taking place this year.  These include many races for state and local political offices, everything from school boards and city council to state legislative positions, plus the odd special election to fill vacancies in Congress or some other office.  As we have written before, most of the political rules apply to these state and local electoral races as well as to the few Federal elections that are taking place to fill open Congressional seats.

Candidates for state and local elections are entitled to virtually all of the political broadcasting rights of Federal candidates – with one exception, the right of reasonable access which is reserved solely for Federal candidates. That means that only Federal candidates have the right to demand access to all classes and dayparts of advertising time that a broadcast station has to sell. As we wrote in our summary of reasonable access, here, that does not mean that candidates can demand as much time as they want, only that stations must sell them a reasonable amount of advertising during the various classes of advertising time sold on the station. For state and local candidates, on the other hand, stations don’t need to sell the candidates any advertising time at all. But, once they decide to sell advertising time to one candidate in a state or local race, almost all of the other political rules apply
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