In the waning days before the mid-term election, we have received many questions about the applicability of the political broadcasting rules to state and local candidates.  In particular, we have seen a number of letters from attorneys representing candidates who are running for state and local offices (everything from Governor to county commissioner or school board representative), who claim that an attack by an opposing candidate is unfounded and that a broadcast station must pull that ad from the air.  Just as is the case with Federal candidates, ads by state candidates cannot be censored by a station.  Thus, except in certain very unusual situations (where the language of the ad would violate some Federal criminal statute, e.g. if it is obscene), a station must air the ad as it was created.  It cannot be rejected because the station disagrees with the content or the tone, and it cannot be pulled even if the opposing candidate believes it to be defamatory.  Because the station cannot censor a candidate’s ad, they have no liability for the content of the ad, i.e. they cannot be held responsible for any defamatory content that it may contain, even if they are on notice of that content.  They cannot censor an ad by a candidate or a candidate’s authorized campaign committee – whether that candidate is running for a Federal, state or local office.

Note that, as we have written many times, this is in contrast to those situations where a candidate complains about an attack ad sponsored by a non-candidate group.  In those cases, the station does have the option of whether or not to run the ad (the no censorship provisions of Section 315 of the Communications Act do not apply).  Thus, if the station is on notice that there is potentially defamatory content in an ad, it must do some investigation of that ad, and make an informed decision about whether or not to allow the ad to continue to run.  If it does not investigate, and continues to run an ad that is defamatory after receiving notice of that fact, in some extreme cases, it could face liability for that defamatory content.

Continue Reading Political Broadcasting Reminder – State and Local Candidates Subject to Lowest Unit Charge, No Censorship and Equal Opportunities Rules

While most of the FCC’s political broadcasting rules have remain unchanged for almost 20 years, each year there are a few new wrinkles that arise, and seemingly a few misconceptions that make the rounds among advertising agencies that work with political candidates.  One such misconception that seems to be circulating this year is that an ad for a state or local political candidate does not need to have their voice or picture to be a "use" under FCC rules.  Only "uses" are entitled to lowest unit rates and subject to the no censorship provisions.  For some reason, agencies in several states have tried to convince broadcasters that, as long as a spot has a sponsorship identification at the end (and, for television, a textual sponsorship identification 4% of screen height for 4 seconds), that spot is a "use."  But that is not correct.  A "use" requires that the recognizable voice or picture of a candidate be in the spot – and that is true even for spots for state and local candidates.  Some advertisers may be confused by the change in Federal laws (now itself almost a decade old) that required that Federal candidates identify themselves in their ads and personally state that they approved the message of the ad,  Perhaps some of the advertisers think that, because the law for Federal candidate is so detailed, and because it does not specifically cover state candidates (though several state laws now have imposed the same obligation on state and local candidates in their states), there is no requirement at all for state and local candidates to appear in their ads.  But they are not correct – for a spot to be a use, a candidate him or herself must have a recognizable voice or image in that ad.

While it is not illegal for a station to run a state or local candidate’s ad when the ad does not have a candidates voice in it, there are important ramifications for the station if the spot is not a "use".  First, without the candidate’s voice or picture, the ad is not entitled to lowest unit rates.  There has been some controversy, not settled by the Federal Election Commission and perhaps subject to interpretations under state election commission rules, about whether a station that charges a candidate lowest unit rates for a spot not entitled to such rates may be making a corporate campaign contribution to that candidate, which is prohibited under Federal law and in most states.  Most importantly for the stations, if the spot does not have the candidates voice or picture in it, the spot is not covered by the ‘No censorship" provision of Section 315 of the Communications Act.  That provision prohibits a station from rejecting a candidate’s ad based on its content.  But, because the station can’t reject the ad based on its content, the station has no liability for the contents of the ad.  Conversely, if the ad does not have the appearance by the candidate in it, then the station is free to reject it based on its content, and thus the station could theoretically have liability for the content of the ad.  As we approach a heated election season where stations don’t want the obligation to check the veracity of every claim made by one candidate about an opposing candidate in an attack ad, stations should be careful to insure that spots purchased by candidates are in fact uses, containing the recognizable voice or picture of the candidate – even for state and local candidates. 

Continue Reading Remember that Political Ads By State and Local Candidates Need to Have Candidate’s Recognizable Voice or Picture to Be a Use

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

As we enter the 2010 election season, questions are beginning to arise about broadcast station on-air employees who decide to run for political office, and what a station needs to do about such employees to avoid issues under the FCC political broadcasting rules.  For instance, in Arizona, talk show host (and former Congressman) JD Hayworth recently left his radio program and announced that he was planning to contest John McCain’s reelection by challenging him in the Republican primary.  On a local level throughout the country, on-air station employees are deciding to throw their hats into the political ring.  And, whether that ring is a Federal office like the one that Mr. Hayworth is seeking, or a state or local elective position, whether it be Governor or member of the Board of Education or Water Commission, an announcer-candidate can mean equal time obligations under Section 315 of the Communications Act and under FCC rules for a broadcast station. 

We wrote about this issue last election cycle,here, and the rules have not changed. Once a candidate becomes "legally qualified" (i.e. he or she has established their right to a place on the ballot by filing the necessary papers), equal opportunities rights are available to the opposing candidates.  What this means is that, if the on-air broadcaster who is running for political office stays on the air, any opposing candidate can come to the station and demand equal opportunities within seven days of the date on which the on-air announcer/candidate was on the air, and the opponent would be entitled to the same amount of time in which they can broadcast a political message, to be run in the same general time period as the station employee/candidate was on the air.  So if your meteorologist decides to run for the city council, and he appears on the 6 o’clock news for 3 minutes each night doing the weather, an opposing city council candidate can get up to 21 minutes of time (3 minutes for each of the last 7 days), and that opposing candidate does not need to read the weather, but can do a full political message.  So what is a station to do when an on-air employee decides to run for office?

Continue Reading Leaving the Air to Run For Office – What to Do With The Broadcaster Who Becomes a Candidate

The FCC today asked for public comments on the petition of the MusicFirst Coalition asking the Commission to take action against broadcast stations who did not fairly address on air the proposed sound recording public performance royalty for terrestrial radio.  The Petition, about which we wrote here, alleges, with very few specifics, that some radio stations have taken adverse actions against musical artists who have spoken out in support of the royalty, and also that stations have refused to run ads supporting the performance royalty while running their own ads opposing the royalty (opposing ads which MusicFirst claims contain false statements).  MusicFirst submits that these actions are contrary to the public interest.  The FCC has asked for comment on specific issues raised in the Petition.  Comments are to be filed by September 8, and Replies on September 23.  

The specific questions on which the FCC seeks comment are as follows:

(i)      whether and to what extent certain broadcasters are “targeting and threatening artists who have spoken out in favor of the PRA, including a refusal to air the music of such artists";

(ii)    the effects of radio broadcasters’ alleged refusal to air advertisements from MusicFIRST in support of the PRA;

(iii)   whether and to what extent broadcasters are engaging in a media campaign, coordinated by NAB, which disseminates falsities about the PRA; and

(iv) whether certain broadcasters have evaded the public file requirements by characterizing their on-air spots in opposition to the PRA as public service announcements.

 While we were concerned about the fact that the Commission is seeking these comments potentially indicating that the FCC might feel that the broadcaster has some obligation to address all sides of all controversial issues, implying that there is life in some vestige of the Fairness Doctrine, we were heartened by the FCC’s acknowledgment of the First Amendment issues that the petition raises.  The Commission stated:

We recognize that substantial First Amendment interests are involved in the examination of speech of any kind, and it is not clear whether remedies are necessary or available to address the actions alleged by MusicFIRST.


Continue Reading FCC Asks for Comment on MusicFirst’s Petition Against Broadcasters for On-Air Activities Opposing Radio Performance Royalty

A story in today’s Wall Street Journal discusses the significant amount of money being spent on television advertising for and against pending proposals for health care reform.  As we have written before, broadcasters are required to keep in their public file information about advertising dealing with Federal issues – records as detailed as those kept for political candidates.  Information in the file should include not only the sponsor of the ad, but also when the spots are scheduled to run (and, after the fact, when they did in fact run), the class of time purchased, and the price paid for the advertising.  Clearly, the health care issue is a Federal issue, as it is being considered by the US Congress in Washington.  So remember to keep your public file up to date with this required information. 

Section 315 of the Communications Act deals with these issues, stating that these records must be kept for any request to purchase time on a "political matter of national importance", which is defined as any matter relating to a candidate or Federal election or "a national legislative issue of public importance."  Clearly, health care would fit in that definition.  The specific information to be kept in the file includes:

  • If the request to purchase time is accepted or rejected
  • Dates on which the ad is run
  • The rates charged by the station
  • Class of time purchased
  • The issue to which the ad refers
  • The name of the purchaser of the advertising time including:
    • The name, address and phone number of a contact person
    • A list of the chief executive officers or members of the executive committee or board of directors of the sponsoring organization.


Continue Reading Health Policy Ads on Broadcast Stations – Remember Your Public File Obligations

Since the election of President Obama and the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, the fears of the return of the Fairness Doctrine have been highlighted on talk radio, online, by emails and in conversations throughout the broadcast industry.  Even though President Obama had stated that he was not in favor of its return, and even liberal commentators have gone so far as to make fun of conservatives for suggesting that there might be an attempt to bring it back (see our post on Keith Olbermann lambasting George Will for making such a suggestion).  Yet this week the doctrine was back into the national discussion, coming up in a press conference with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs (who joked it off without dismissing the rumors) and in a speech by FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell.  What’s all the fuss about anyway?

To really understand the debate, it’s important to understand what the Fairness Doctrine is and what it is not.  We’ve seen many politicians referring to the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time Rule in the same sentence, as if they are part and parcel of the same thing. In fact, they are different issuesEssentially, the Fairness Doctrine simply required that stations provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public importance.  The Fairness Doctrine never required "equal time" in the sense of strict equality for each side of an issue on a minute for minute basis.  In talk programs and news coverage, a station just had to make sure that both points of view were presented in such a way that the listener would get exposure to them.  How that was done was in a station’s discretion, and the FCC intervened in only the most egregious cases.

Continue Reading Fairness Doctrine Back in the News (Part 1) – What’s It all About?