The Zapple Doctrine was an outgrowth of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine.  The Zapple Doctrine required that broadcast stations that give air time to the supporters of one candidate in an election give time to the supporters of competing candidates as well. Even though the Fairness Doctrine has been defunct for years, having had various manifestations of the Doctrine declared unconstitutional either by the Courts or the FCC, Zapple apparently lived on, or at least a death certificate had never been issued (see, for instance, our articles mentioning the continued life support of the Doctrine, here and here).  Thus stations had to be concerned about giving air time to supporters of political candidates for fear of having to provide a similar amount of time to those supporting competing candidates.  Apparently, that uncertainty has now been resolved, as in two just released cases, the FCC”s Media Bureau has declared that Zapple, like the rest of the Fairness Doctrine, is dead.

The cases just decided (available here and here) both involved the recall election of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, where complaints were filed against the renewals of two radio stations, complaining that those stations did not provide equal opportunities to supporters of Walker’s recall opponent even though station hosts provided on-air support for Walker.  The FCC rejected those complaints, declaring:

Given the fact that the Zapple Doctrine was based on an interpretation of the fairness doctrine, which has no current legal effect, we conclude that the Zapple Doctrine similarly has no current legal effect.

So why didn’t the FCC’s equal opportunities rule, which is still in effect, apply to this situation?
Continue Reading FCC Decides that it will No Longer Enforce the Zapple Doctrine – Killing the Last Remnant of the Fairness Doctrine

Yesterday, FCC Chairman Genachowski issued a press release stating that the FCC was abolishing the Fairness Doctrine as part of its clearing of its book of 83 obsolete media rules.  What should the reaction of broadcasters be now that the Fairness Doctrine has been officially abolished?  Probably, a collective yawn.  In 1987 – almost 25 years ago – the FCC felt that it could not enforce the doctrine as it was an unconstitutional restriction on the freedom of speech of broadcasters.  Since then, we have had no instances where the FCC has tried to revive the doctrine.  While, as we have written before, the revival of the doctrine is a political issue that is from time to time bandied about as something horrible one political party or another plans to impose on America, there really has been no serious attempt to bring the doctrine back in this decade.  So the repeal of the actual FCC rule that sets out the doctrine is really inconsequential, as it practically changes nothing.

What remains unknown about yesterday’s announcement from the Chairman is just how far this repeal goes.  While certain corollaries of the Doctrine – including the political editorializing and personal attack rules – have been specifically mentioned in press reports as being repealed, the one vestige of the doctrine that potentially has some vitality – the Zapple Doctrine compelling a station to provide time to the supporters of one candidate if the station provides time to the supporters of another candidate in a political race, has never specifically been abolished, and is not mentioned in the Chairman’s statement.  Zapple, also known as "quasi-equal opportunities", has been argued in in various recent controversies, including in connection with the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry, when Kerry supporters claimed that they should get equal time to respond should certain television stations air the anti-Kerry Swift Boat "documentary."  We have written about Zapple many times (see, for instance, here, in connection with the Citizens United decision).  What would be beneficial to broadcasters would be a determination as to whether Zapple has any remaining vitality, as some have felt that this doctrine is justified independent of the Fairness Doctrine.  Perhaps that clarification will come when the full text of the FCC action is released.


Continue Reading FCC Repeals the Fairness Doctrine – Who Cares?

Advertising from Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC was rejected by Des Moines television station WOI-TV, based on its belief that these commercials would be confusing to Iowa voters.  Colbert, the host of Comedy Central’s the Colbert Report, has formed his own Political Action Committee to run ads during the upcoming Presidential election.  The first ads ran in Iowa this past week – making fun of the amount of third party money that was being spent on political advertising in Iowa and urging voters to vote for "Rick Parry", with an "a" rather than "Rick Perry."   WOI-TV, rejected them, while the spots ran on all other stations in Iowa’s capitol city.  Are there legal issues with this station deciding not to run these ads?

Not at all.  The FCC has said many times that broadcast stations are not "common carriers," meaning that they don’t have to run all advertising time that advertisers want to run on their stations.  Instead, stations pick and choose among the ads that are brought their way, and stations have an affirmative duty to reject ads that they feel are not in the public interest.  So, while many may question whether these Colbert ads were outside of the norms applied to advertising in the public interest (as Colbert himself argued that the station runs many other ads as likely to confuse the public on many issues), the station has the absolute, non-delegable duty to decide on its own what is and what is not in the public interest – with the very narrow exception of candidate ads.


Continue Reading Colbert Super PAC Ad Rejected by Iowa TV Station – Can They Do That?

The FCC today heard from its Future of Media task force, when its head, Steven Waldman presented a summary of its contents at its monthly meeting.  At the same time, the task force issued its 475 page report – which spends most of its time talking about the history of media and the current media landscape, and only a handful of pages presenting specific recommendations for FCC action.  The task force initially had a very broad mandate, to examine the media and how it was serving local informational needs of citizens, and to recommend actions not only for the FCC, but also for other agencies who might have jurisdiction over various media entities that the FCC does not regulate.  Those suggestions, too, were few in the report as finally issued.  What were the big headlines for broadcasters?  The report suggests that the last remnants of the Fairness Doctrine be repealed, and that the FCC’s localism proceeding be terminated – though some form of enhanced disclosure form be adopted for broadcasters to report about their treatment of local issues of public importance, and that this information, and the rest of a broadcaster’s public file, be kept online so that it would be more easily accessible to the public and to researchers.  Online disclosures were also suggested for sponsorship information, particularly with respect to paid content included in news and informational programming.  And proposals for expansion of LPFMs and for allowing noncommercial stations to raise funds for other nonprofit entities were also included in the report. 

While we have not yet closely read the entire 475 page report, which was tiled The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age, we can provide some information about some of the FCC’s recommendations, and some observations about the recommendations, the process, and the reactions that it received.  One of the most important things to remember is that this was simply a study.   As Commissioner McDowell observed at the FCC meeting, it is not an FCC action, and it is not even a formal proposal for FCC action.  Instead, the report is simply a set of recommendations that this particular group of FCC employees and consultants came up with.  Before any real regulatory requirements can come out of this, in most cases, the FCC must first adopt a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, or a series of such notices, and ask for public comment on these proposals.  That may take some time, if there is action on these suggestions at all.   There are some proposals, however, such as the suggestion that certain LPFM rules be adopted in the FCC’s review of the Local Community Radio Act so as to find availability for LPFM stations in urban areas, that could be handled as part of some proceedings that are already underway.


Continue Reading Recommendations from the Future of Media Report: End Localism Proceeding, Require More Online Public File Disclosures of Programming Information, Abolish Fairness Doctrine

In the last few weeks, I’ve been asked several times by broadcasters whether an ad should be considered an "issue ad."   Usually, the ad in question deals with some sort of faintly controversial issue, and the broadcaster seems torn about how to classify the ad.   In many ways, the answer is almost irrelevant as, other than some public file obligations, whether or not an ad is an issue ad has little practical significance.  Issue ads are not entitled to special rates – lowest unit rates are reserved for candidate ads.  They are not entitled to special placement in broadcast schedules.  As there is no Fairness Doctrine, there isn’t even a requirement that you treat both sides of an issue in the same fashion (except perhaps, where a Fairness obligation may still arise if the issue being discussed is a candidate in an election, when the last remnant of Fairness, the Zapple Doctrine, has not officially been declared dead).  So why worry about whether or not something is an issue ad?

The principal reason is the public file. Commission rules require that the sponsor of an issue ad be identified in a broadcaster’s public file, along with the sponsor’s principal officers or directors.  This is required for any ad dealing with a controversial issue of public importance.  The ad does not need to deal with a political issue, or one to be considered by a government body.  Any controversial issue of public importance merits the public file treatment.  For ads dealing with a "federal issue", one to be considered by the US Congress, any Federal administrative agency or any other branch of the United States government, additional disclosures need to be made in the file (which we have listed before), setting out all the information that you would need to provide with respect to a candidate ad – including the price paid for the ad and the schedule on which the ad will run. 


Continue Reading So Just What is an “Issue Ad” and Why Should I Care?

The Supreme Court Decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, freeing corporations to use their corporate funds to take explicit positions on political campaigns, has been mostly analyzed by broadcast trade publications as a good thing – creating one more class of potential buyers for broadcaster’s advertising time during the political season – which seems to almost be nonstop in these days of intense partisan battles in Washington and in the statehouses throughout the country.  What has not been addressed are the potential legal issues that this "third party" money may pose for broadcasters during the course of political campaigns.  Not only will an influx of money from non-candidate groups require that broadcasters review the contents of  more commercials to determine if the claims that they make are true, but it may also give rise to the return of the Zapple doctrine, one of the few remnants of the Fairness Doctrine never specifically repudiated by the FCC, but one which has not been actually applied in over a quarter of a century.  Public file obligations triggered by these ads also can not be overlooked. 

First, the need for broadcasters to vet the truth of allegations made in political ads sponsored by non-candidate advertisers.  As we have written before(see our post here), the political broadcasting rules enforced by the FCC allow broadcasters to run ads sponsored by the candidates themselves without fear of any liability for the claims made in those ads.  In fact, the Communications Act forbids a station from censoring a candidate ad.  Because the station cannot censor the candidate ad (except in the exceptionally rare situation where the airing of the ad might violate a Federal felony statute), the broadcaster has no liability for the contents of the ad.  So candidates can say whatever they want about each other – they can even lie through their teeth – and the broadcaster need not fear any liability for defamation based on the contents of those ads.  This is not so for ads run by third parties – like PACs, Right to Life groups, labor unions, unincorporated associations like MoveOn.org and, after the Citizens United case, corporations. 


Continue Reading What is the Impact on Broadcasters of Supreme Court Decision that Corporations Can Buy Political Ads? More Money, More Ad Challenges and the Return of the Zapple Doctrine

The New York Times ran an article about how certain African-American radio hosts were acting as cheerleaders for the Obama campaign, and contrasting that to past elections where talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh gave a boost to Republican candidates on their programs.  How is it that these programs can take political positions without triggering requirements that opposing candidates get equal time?  Under FCC rules, unless a candidate’ recognizable voice or image is broadcast by a station, there is no right to equal opportunities.  In the past, until the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine by declaring it to be unconstitutional, even without a candidate appearance, the station would have had an obligation to give both sides of a controversial issue of public importance, such as an election, free time to respond to on-air statements by an announcer.  When the doctrine was abolished, stations were free to air pointed programs taking positions on issues, giving rise initially principally to the conservative commentators, and more recently to their more liberal counterparts such as those heard on Air America radio.

The abolition of the Fairness Doctrine also allowed broadcasters to editorialize, even endorsing candidates for political office without having to give the opponent of their favored candidate equal time, just like print media can do. Similarly, a station can take a position on a ballot issue, or on another controversial issue of public importance in their communities without having to provide time to those with opposing viewpoints – allowing stations to fully participate in their communities political life.  Under the Fairness Doctrine, stations even had to give time to those with viewpoints opposed to parties who bought time on a controversial issue if the opponents could not themselves afford to buy time.  The occasional discussion of reviving the Fairness Doctrine ignores these issues.


Continue Reading No Candidate, No Fairness Doctrine and No Equal Time

In the last few days before the Super Tuesday series of presidential primaries, efforts are being made across the political spectrum to convince voters to vote for or against the remaining candidates.  With Obama buying Super Bowl ads in many markets, Clinton planning a one-hour program on the Hallmark Channel the night before the primaries, Rush Limbaugh and other conservative radio host attacking McCain, and third-party interest groups and unions running ads supporting or attacking various candidates, a casual observer, looking at this media blitz, may wonder how all these efforts work under the rules and laws governing the FCC and political broadcasting.

For instance, sitting here watching the Super Bowl, I just watched a half-time ad for Barack Obama.  Did the  Obama campaign spring for one of those million dollar Super Bowl ads that we all read about?  Probably not.  It appears, according to press reports, that instead of buying a national ad in the Fox network coverage, the campaign purchased local ads in certain media markets.  And with reasonable access requirements under the Communications Act and FCC rules, he could insist that his commercial get access to the program as all Federal candidates have a right of reasoanble access to all classes and dayparts of station programming.  Moreover, the spot would have to be sold at lowest unit rates.  While those rates are not the rates that an advertiser would pay for a spot on a typical early Sunday evening on a Fox program, they still would be as low as any other advertiser would pay for a similar ad aired during the game.  In this case, by buying on local stations, at lowest unit rates, his campaign apparently made the calculation that it could afford the cost, and that the exposure made it not a bad deal.


Continue Reading The Run-Up to Super Tuesday – Rush, the Super Bowl, Union Ads and an Hour on the Hallmark Channel