In recent days, we’ve been writing about political broadcasting topics in anticipation of the November election. We provided a refresher on the basics of lowest unit charges on Monday, and equal opportunities on Wednesday. Today, we’ll look at reasonable access – how much time must stations sell to political candidates (or give to them if they would rather meet their obligations through free time, which few stations are willing to do). Reasonable access requires broadcasters to make reasonable amounts of time available to candidates for Federal office – in all classes and dayparts on all commercial broadcast stations (noncommercial stations were exempted by Congress about a decade ago when candidates started to demand free time on these stations). With the expected onslaught of political advertising coming up in most battleground states, stations fearful of having to devote all of their commercial time to election advertising wonder just how much time is reasonable?
The FCC leaves the determination as to what is “reasonable” to the reasonable discretion of the station, as long as access is provided to all classes and dayparts on the station. The discretion, though, is to be exercised in coordination with the political candidates themselves. For Federal candidates, stations should not put up-front limits (e.g. in a political rate card or on a political disclosure statement) as to how many spots they will sell to any Federal candidate in any specified period of time. Instead, stations are supposed to engage in a give and take with the candidate, accessing the candidate’s needs and desires and weighing them against the needs of the station to provide advertising to other clients. After hearing the needs of the candidates, it is up to the station to reach a determination as to what is reasonable. If stations give candidates at least some access to all classes and dayparts on their stations, even if it is not as much as the candidate wants, stations have traditionally been given the benefit of the doubt by the FCC.