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Lowest Unit Charge Windows Open in About 30 States and Territories – Reviewing A Broadcaster’s Political Advertising Obligations

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Sat 18 Jan 2020 2:51 am

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.

The beginning of the LUC (or LUR for “lowest unit rate”) window in these states is just the beginning of the political windows that will be opening across the country for Presidential primaries and caucuses, as well as for Congressional races and state and local offices. These political 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.

In most states, the Presidential contests will have separate primary windows from other political contests that will be decided in the general election in November.  In many states, there will be primaries in the Spring or Summer in which nominees will be selected for seats in the US House of Representatives, for contested Senate seats, and for state and local offices.   In some states there may be entirely different timing for municipal primaries and elections. For each of these primaries held at different times, there will be a window during which lowest unit charges will apply, but only to those candidates running in the race to be decided in that particular election.  Be sure to stay on top of all of these election dates in your station’s service area.

As we have noted before (see our articles here and here), advertising time does not need to be sold to state and local candidates by broadcast stations – the “reasonable access” rules don’t apply. But once a station decides to sell time to these candidates, all of the other political rules apply – including lowest unit rates. The right to these rates cannot be waived by state and local candidates.

Even before the windows open in your state, your station needs to engage in significant planning to make sure that you are charging candidates the correct rates and observing all of the other political advertising rules. We’ve written about some of those issues here.

Reasonable access and equal opportunities apply even outside the window. That means that federal candidates have a right to buy time on your stations, even outside the window. Equal opportunities mean that if you sell ads to one candidate, you must sell them to another. And if you have a candidate on the air outside of an exempt program (see our articles here and here on exempt programs), you must give the other candidate equal time if they request it within 7 days. That goes for on-air appearances of station employees who decide to run for office (see our articles herehere and here) and for commercial advertisers who appear in their own spots and become political candidates (see our article here).

Once legally qualified candidates buy time, inside or outside the political window, the “no censorship” rules apply (see our articles here and here), meaning that you cannot censor a candidate’s message.  Because a station cannot censor a candidate’s ad, in almost all cases, they must run the spot unaltered with the message that the candidate has decided to convey, even if the station questions its truthfulness.  But that means that the station has no liability for the candidate ad.

Third party ads, from PACs, political parties and other advocacy groups will no doubt accompany the increase in candidate spending. These ads, while not entitled to lowest unit charges, nevertheless present their own unique challenges. As these ads can be edited or rejected based on their content, stations can theoretically have liability for their content if that content is defamatory or raises other legal issues (see our article here on dealing with challenges to the truth of these third-party political ads). Plus, the FCC’s recent decision about the public file obligations that go with third-party political ads (and other federal issue ads) provide yet another layer of complexity for broadcasters (see our articles here and here).

These are just some of the issues that stations will need to deal with as the election season kicks into high gear. Study up, get prepared, and do your best to cope with the upcoming onslaught of political advertising that may be coming your way.

While You Were on Vacation….Looking at FCC Regulatory Actions over the Holidays and Deadlines for January

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Mon 6 Jan 2020 5:45 pm

While many of us were trying to enjoy the holidays, the world of regulation kept right on moving, seemingly never taking time off.  So we thought that we ought to highlight some of the actions taken by the FCC in the last couple weeks and to also remind you of some of the upcoming January regulatory deadlines.

Before Christmas, we highlighted some of the regulatory dates for January – including the Quarterly Issues Programs Lists due to be placed in the online public file of all full-power stations by January 10.  Also on the list of dates in our post on January deadlines are the minimum SoundExchange fees due in January for most radio stations and other webcasters streaming programming on the Internet.  January also brings the deadline for Biennial Ownership Reports (postponed from their normal November 1 filing deadline).

In that summary of January regulatory dates, we had mentioned that the initial filing of the new Annual Children’s Television Programming Report would be due this month.  But, over the holiday week, the FCC extended that filing deadline for that report until March 30 to give broadcasters time to familiarize themselves with the new forms.  The FCC will be doing a webinar on the new form on January 23.  In addition, the FCC announced that many of the other changes in the children’s television rules that were awaiting review under the Paperwork Reduction Act had been approved and are now effective.  See our article here for more details.

Our summary of the January regulatory dates also mentioned the filing window that opens on January 29 for the April auction of new FM channels.  The deadline for applications to participate in the auction is February 11 at 6 PM EST (see our article here).  We did not mention another filing window falling in January, including one for amendments to pending applications for new LPTV stations or TV translators that had their proposals blocked by changes made during the repacking of the television band following the incentive auction.  These applicants can amend their applications to remove these conflicts with repacked channels by January 31.  See the FCC Public Notice of this filing window here.

New comment dates in rulemaking proceedings were also recently announced for January.  Comments are due on January 22 on the FCC’s proposal to change the rules that preclude radio stations in one service (AM or FM) from duplicating programming on another station in that same service if the two stations serve substantially the same area.  See our article here on the FCC’s questions about possible changes in this rule.  Comments are also due on the FCC’s inquiry as to whether to allow “Franken FMs” – LPTV stations on Channel 6 providing analog audio programming that can be received on FM 87.7 – to continue to generate an analog audio signal to continue the FM services after the otherwise mandatory end of analog television broadcasting on July 13, 2021.  See our article here on some of the issues raised by the FCC, and the Federal Register publication of this notice here setting the comment dates.

Also announced over the holidays was the FCC’s procedural reaction to the Third Circuit decision overturning its 2017 changes in the ownership rules – including the repeal of the broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership rules and the rules that allowed TV duopolies even in markets with fewer than 8 independent voices from those owning or programming stations in that market.  With these and other rules back in effect after the Court’s decision, the FCC now requires applicants for a renewal of license or for the acquisition of a station through an assignment or transfer to demonstrate that they meet the ownership restrictions that were in effect prior to the 2017 changes.  For more details on what is now required, see our post here.

It is also worth reminding stations that they should have updated their EAS certifications that expired back in November to authenticate EAS alerts transmitted through the IPAWs online alert system.  The updated certification to authenticate these alerts was late in coming out, so the FCC gave stations until January 7 to have their systems updated.  If you can’t meet that deadline, an STA is required.  See our article here on this issue.

Finally, stations need to remember that we are in political season.  Lowest unit rate windows are already open for ads targeting voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.  These rates kick in on January 8 for the Democratic caucuses in Nevada, and on January 15 for the South Carolina primary.  Only 3 days later, lowest unit rates for Presidential primaries or caucuses begin in Super Tuesday states including Alabama, American Samoa (D), Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia.  Later this month, lowest unit charge windows for these presidential contests open in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota (D), Washington, US Virgin Islands, West Virginia, Guam (R), N. Mariana Islands (D) and Wyoming.  Watch for the exact dates in your state – as well as the lowest unit rate windows for Congressional, state and local races in your communities.  See our article here on the opening of the lowest unit rate windows.

Obviously, there are plenty of deadlines and other regulatory obligations coming up early this year.  This is but a summary of some of the obligations we see as generally significant to broadcasters – but check with your own counsel to see if there are other deadlines that apply to your own station.  Happy New Year – and good luck navigating the regulatory landscape of 2020.

January Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters – Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists, Children’s Television Annual Report, EEO, License Renewal, Political Rate Windows, FM Auction Dates and More

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Thu 19 Dec 2019 5:24 pm

With many Americans using the holiday season to rest and recharge, broadcasters should do the same but not forget that January is a busy month for complying with several important regulatory deadlines for broadcast stations.  These include dates that regularly occur for broadcasters, as well as some unique to this month.  In fact, with the start of the lowest unit rate windows for primaries and caucuses in many states, January is a very busy regulatory month.  So don’t head off to Grandma’s house without making sure that you have all of your regulatory obligations under control.

One date applicable to all full-power stations is the requirement that, by Friday, January 10, 2020, all commercial and noncommercial radio and television stations must upload to their online public file their quarterly issues/programs list for the period covering October 1 – December 31, 2019.  The issues/programs list demonstrates the station’s “most significant treatment of community issues” during the three-month period covered by each quarterly report.  We wrote about the importance of these reports many times (see, for instance, our posts here and here).  With all public files now online, FCC staff, viewers or listeners, or anyone with an internet connection can easily look at your public file, see when you uploaded your Quarterly Report, and review the contents of it.  In the current renewal cycle, the FCC has issued two fines of $15,000 each to stations that did not bother with the preparation of these lists (see our posts here and here on those fines).  In past years, the FCC has shown a willingness to fine stations or hold up their license renewals or both (see here and here) over public file issues where there was some but not complete compliance with the obligations to retain these issues/programs lists for the entire renewal term.  For a short video on the basics of the quarterly issues/programs list and the online public inspection file, see here.

On January 1, 2020 and January 16, 2020, radio stations in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi must air pre-filing announcements tied to their license renewal filing date of February 3, 2020.  Radio stations in Alabama and Georgia must air post-filing announcements about their license renewals that were due by December 2, 2019.  Stations are required to air pre-filing announcements in the two months prior to the month in which their license renewal application is due, and to air post-filing announcements in the three months after their renewal application is due.

One of the biggest changes of the last year to the broadcast regulatory landscape is the modification of the programming and reporting requirements for children’s television programming.  Stations are no longer required to submit quarterly reports documenting their compliance with the children’s TV rules.  Instead, reporting will now be done annually, and stations must file their first annual report—FCC Form 2100, Schedule H—electronically through LMS by Thursday, January 30, 2020.  For a deeper look at how to comply with the new programming and reporting changes, see our posts here, here, here, and here.  We are still waiting for further guidance from the FCC about the quarterly certifications regarding compliance with commercial limits and websites during children’s programming.  Unless the FCC staff issues guidance to the contrary, stations should probably plan on uploading those certifications by January 10, 2020.

By Friday, January 31, 2020, commercial and noncommercial stations must complete and submit through LMS their Biennial Ownership Report (Form 323 for commercial stations; Form 323-E for noncommercial stations).  The reports were originally due by December 1, 2019, but the FCC extended the deadline to the end of January to update LMS.  The information in the report needs to reflect the licensee’s ownership as of October 1, 2019.  Don’t wait until the last minute to file these reports, as there can be technical slowdowns in the LMS system when there are major filing dates.  The January 31 deadline is already an extended one and unlikely to be further extended, so make sure that you meet the FCC’s deadline.

The repacking of the broadcast TV band, made necessary by the FCC’s broadcast incentive auction, continues across the country.  Stations assigned to Phase 7 must complete the transition to their new channels by January 17, 2020.  One day later, on January 18, 2020, stations assigned to Phase 8 of the repack may begin testing and operating on their new channels.

As we wrote earlier this week, Presidential primaries and caucuses are right around the corner, including the election-heavy day in March often dubbed Super Tuesday.  This means stations in more than two dozen states will soon find themselves within the 45-day primary/caucus political window, which brings with it special obligations like lowest unit rates for candidates.  With lowest unit charge windows opening on December 20, 2019 (Iowa), December 28, 2019 (New Hampshire), January 8, 2020 (Nevada), January 15, 2020 (South Carolina), January 18, 2020 (Alabama, American Samoa, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia), January 23, 2020 (Puerto Rico), January 25, 2020 (Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, and Washington State), January 27, 2020 (U.S. Virgin Islands and West Virginia), and January 29, 2020 (Guam, N. Mariana Islands and Wyoming), stations should plan ahead to be sure station employees understand the requirements that go along with political advertising, including lowest unit charge and the expanded public file disclosure obligations issued by the FCC in mid-October.  For more guidance on navigating election season, see our Political Broadcasting Guide for Broadcasters.

Speaking of the expanded public file disclosures, earlier this month, we wrote about the FCC seeking comment on a petition for reconsideration of those new requirements filed by the National Association of Broadcasters and a group of TV station owners.  The petition asks the FCC to reconsider imposing the political issue ad disclosure rules that it clarified following complaints against 11 TV stations by two public interest groups.  The clarified rules require broadcasters who accept ads on federal issues of national importance to disclose in their public file each and every federal issue and federal candidate mentioned in the ad, many times requiring the identification of multiple candidates and issues for each ad.  Additionally, broadcasters must now specifically reach out to the organization sponsoring an issue ad or the agency who placed the ad for the names of any additional officers or directors, if the organization only submitted one name as constituting the entire board in its initial disclosure.  Comments in this proceeding are due by Monday, December 30, 2019, with the FCC just yesterday issuing an order extending the reply comments deadline to January 28, 2020.

Those looking to file for one of the 130 new FM channels due to be auctioned off by the FCC in April 2020 can begin to file the “short-form” applications needed to participate in the auction in the window opening on January 29 and closing at 6 PM Eastern Time on February 11.  We wrote about the upcoming auction here and here.  The FCC will impose a filing freeze on all FM minor changes during this short-form window, so plan accordingly if you need to file a minor change application in the near future.

Commercial and noncommercial (note that special rules apply to public radio) stations that stream music programming must pay the minimum fee to SoundExchange by Friday, January 31, 2020.  For commercial stations, the minimum fee is $500 per station/channel, not to exceed $50,000.  For noncommercial stations, the minimum fee is $500 per station/channel, which covers the first 159,140 aggregate tuning hours per month.  For more information on the minimum fee, including how to pay it, and other 2020 rate information, visit the SoundExchange website here.

Looking ahead on the calendar to early February, we mentioned above the February 3 license renewal filing deadline for radio stations (including LPFMs) in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi.  Station employment units (a station employment unit is a station or group of commonly owned stations in the same market that share at least one employee) with five or more full-time employees in several states have EEO reports due Saturday, February 1, 2020.  Stations must place their EEO report in their public file on the anniversary of their license renewal filing deadline.  So stations in Kansas, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma must have the reports in their files by Saturday, February 1, 2020.

As always, we have just highlighted some of the upcoming regulatory deadlines for January.  Check with your own station’s counsel for more information about deadlines that may apply to your operation.

Election Season in High Gear for Broadcasters – Lowest Unit Rate Windows to Begin in Iowa This Week, New Hampshire Next and Other States Soon to Follow

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Wed 18 Dec 2019 4:45 pm

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.

In most states, there will be a separate primary window in which contenders for seats in the US House of Representatives will be selected. A third of the Senate is also up for election – meaning primaries in most of those states. Plus there will be primaries for state and local elections – and in some states municipal primaries and elections may be held at times different than those for the US Congress and even different from other state offices. For each of these primaries held at different times, there will be a window during which lowest until charges will apply, but only to those candidates running in the race to be decided in that particular election.

As we have noted before (see our articles here and here), state and local candidates do not need to be sold time by broadcast stations – the “reasonable access” rules don’t apply. But once a station decides to sell them advertising time, all of the other political rules apply – including lowest unit rates. The right to these rates cannot be waived by state and local candidates.

Even before the windows open in your state, your station needs to engage in significant planning to make sure that you are charging candidates the correct rates and observing all of the other political advertising rules. We’ve written about some of those issues here. Reasonable access and equal opportunities apply even outside the window. That means that federal candidates have a right to buy time on your stations, even outside the window. Once they buy time, the “no censorship” rules apply (see our articles here and here), meaning that you cannot censor a candidate’s message. Equal opportunities means that if you sell ads to one candidate, you must sell them to another. And if you have a candidate on the air outside of an exempt program (see our articles here and here on exempt programs), you must give the other candidate equal time if they request it within 7 days. That goes for on-air appearances of station employees who decide to run for office (see our articles herehere and here) and for commercial advertisers who appear in their own spots and become political candidates (see our article here).

Third party ads, from PACs, political parties and other advocacy groups will no doubt accompany the increase in candidate spending. These ads, while not entitled to lowest unit charges, nevertheless present their own unique challenges. As these ads can be edited or rejected based on their content, stations can theoretically have liability for their content if that content is defamatory or raises other legal issues (see our article here on dealing with challenges to the truth of these third-party political ads). Plus, the FCC’s recent decision about the public file obligations that go with third-party political ads (and other federal issue ads) provide yet another layer of complexity for broadcasters (see our articles here and here).

These are just some of the issues that stations will need to deal with as the election season kicks into high gear. So study up, get prepared, and do your best to cope with the upcoming onslaught of political advertising that may be coming your way.

Reminder – FCC Political Rules Apply to Off-Year Elections for State and Local Offices

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Fri 20 Sep 2019 5:15 pm

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

That means that if a broadcast station decides to sell advertising time to one candidate in a state or local political race, they must sell it to all candidates for the same race – and be prepared to make available equal amounts of time in equivalent time periods. Stations can decide to make available advertising only in certain dayparts (or on certain stations in a cluster) for state and local races. They can even make different dayparts (or stations) available for different political races, as long as all candidates for the same race are treated the same. So, for instance, a station could decide to offer only spots during weekend and overnight time periods to candidates for the city council, while offering candidates for governor time during all dayparts. A station just needs to treat all legally qualified candidates (including independent and fringe party candidates) for the same state or local race in the same way.

If the time is sold to state and local candidates during the 60 days before the November general election, the time must be sold to the candidate at lowest unit rates. See our summaries of the rules relating to equal time here, and to lowest unit charges here. Similarly, if a station on-air personality decides to run for state or local office (anything from the school board or local planning commission to governor or state legislature), the station needs to consider whether to take that personality off the air, or risk having to provide equal time to all competing applicants – for free – in amounts equivalent to the amount of time that the employee-candidate appeared on the air, even if the employee never mentions his or her candidacy at all. See our articles about this topic here and here.

For more about the political rules, see our Broadcaster’s Guide to Political Broadcasting here. Don’t forget about these political advertising rules – even though this is an odd numbered year!

When a Broadcast Advertiser Becomes A Political Candidate, What is a Station to Do?

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Tue 27 Aug 2019 4:48 am

In many states, we are in election season for local offices, which has resulted in a question that has come up repeatedly in the last few weeks about local candidates – usually running for state or municipal offices – who appear in advertisements for local businesses that they own or manage. Often times, these individuals will appear in their business’ ads outside of election season, and don’t want to stop appearing in those ads during their bid for elective office. We wrote about this question in an article published two years ago and again a bit more than a year ago.  But, as the question continues to come up, it is worth revisiting the subject. What is a station to do when a local advertiser decides to run for office?

While we have many times written about what happens when a broadcast station’s on-air employee runs for office (see, for instance, our articles here, here and here), we have addressed the question less often about the advertiser who is also a candidate. If a candidate’s recognizable voice or, for TV, image appears on a broadcast station in any “positive” way, whether it is political in nature or not, it is considered a “use” by the political candidate.  What is a “positive” use?  Basically, it is any appearance that is not negative to the candidate (i.e., it is not in an ad attacking that candidate).  To be a positive “use” by the advertising candidate, the appearance must also be outside of an exempt program (in other words, outside of a news or news interview program which, as we wrote here, is a very broad category of programming exempt from the equal time rules).. “Uses” can arise well outside the political sphere, so Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were pulled from TV when he was running for office, as were any re-runs of The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice featuring Donald Trump.  An appearance by a candidate in a commercial for his or her local business is similarly a positive “use” which needs to be included in a station’s political file (providing all the information about the sponsor, schedule and price of the ad, as you would for any pure political buy). But that does not necessarily mean that a station needs to pull the ad from the air.

A commercial for a business is almost always a paid spot, where the station is receiving money to air the ad (and not an unpaid one like the appearance in an entertainment program, where the station does not get paid to air the comedy program or movie in which a candidate appears).  Thus, a “use” arising in a paid commercial gives rise to equal opportunities for other opposing candidates to buy time on the station. The station usually will not be required to provide free time to opposing candidates (but watch for candidate appearances in PSAs, usually by incumbents, as that might give rise to free time for opposing candidates). If the station has plenty of commercial inventory and does not mind selling spots to the opposing candidate for the lowest unit rates that apply during the political windows (45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election) to spots purchased by a candidate’s authorized campaign committee (the opposing candidate gets lowest unit rate for a spot run in connection with his or her campaign, even if the commercial business bought the spot featuring their employee-candidate at regular commercial rates), a station may decide to continue to air the business spots with the candidate’s appearance. But if inventory is tight, or the station wants to avoid having to sell political ads to candidates in a particular state or local race (as state and local candidates, unlike those running for federal office, have no right to access to buy spots), the station may want to tell the business that the candidate can’t appear in the business’ spots once the candidate becomes legally qualified, as the running of those spots featuring the voice or image of the candidate would require the station to provide equal time to the opposing candidates upon request.

Note that the “no censorship” provision of the Communications Act and the lowest unit rate provisions likely do not apply to the business spots even though they contain the voice or image of a candidate. That is because these spots are not uses by the candidate or the candidate’s authorized campaign committee which are covered by the rules providing for lowest unit rates and the “no censorship” provisions of the law. As the commercial spots are not by the candidate or his or her political committee, but instead they are commercials by a business that happen to be “uses,” normal commercial rates can be applied rather than lowest unit rates (though the opposing candidates do get LUR for their equal time ads run during a political window).

Note, also, that business spots that advertise a business in which the candidate’s name appears, but where the actual candidate does not appear by voice or picture, probably do not trigger any equal opportunity issues. It is the recognizable voice or picture of the candidate that triggers the equal opportunity and public file requirements. For those of us here in the DC area, we are accustomed to seeing ads for the local Volvo dealer even during election season, even though that dealership is named after a politician currently serving in Congress.

As in all areas of political broadcasting, any analysis of the implications of any on-air appearance of a candidate can be a very nuanced matter, and small changes in the facts can result in big changes in the legal conclusions that apply. So if these situations arise, consult with the station’s legal counsel before making any decision as to how to treat these kinds of ads. This article is just meant to note that there may be options for dealing with the candidate-advertiser if he or she wants to stay on their business’ spots during an election period, depending on the station’s circumstances. For more general information about the rules that apply to political broadcasting, see our Guide to Political Broadcasting, here.

Political Broadcasting Issues to Consider Now for the 2020 Election Campaign

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Fri 31 May 2019 4:23 pm

The 2020 presidential elections already loom large, with one of the over 20 Democratic candidates for the Presidential nomination seemingly appearing on whatever TV talk show you tune into on your TV set. With the first debate among these candidates scheduled for late June, it seems like we have a real election already underway – and it is time for broadcasters to start thinking about their political broadcasting obligations under FCC rules and the Communications Act, and beginning to make plans for compliance with those rules.

Stations in Iowa and other early primary states have already been receiving buys from Presidential candidates, PACs, and other third-party groups. That spending is sure to increase in the latter part of the year as these early primaries and caucuses are scheduled early in 2020. What should stations in Iowa and in other states be thinking about now to get ready for the 2020 elections?

We have written about some of the issues that broadcasters should already be considering in our Political Broadcasting Guide (which we plan to update shortly). Obviously, one of the primary issues is lowest unit rates – as those rates become effective 45 days before the primaries (or before any caucus which is open to members of the general public). Thus, the lowest unit charge windows for Presidential campaigns will start for the political contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in December, and roll across the country early next year as the other primaries and caucuses draw near. In addition to our Political Broadcasting Guide, we wrote about other issues you should be considering in determining your lowest unit rates here.

In addition to the question of rates for political ads, stations should be thinking about access for political candidates. Especially in the early primary and caucus states, with so many candidates for the Democratic nomination, spot availability may become tight in the weeks leading up to actual voting. But, as long as a candidate does not sit on their rights, equal opportunities requires that candidates have a right to respond to their opponents in equal amounts of broadcast time, and reasonable access requires that you make available time to all Federal candidates in reasonable amounts. But reasonable access does not require that you provide a candidate with all the time that they request (see our article here). As well-funded candidates come in to stations now to request big ad buys later in the political season, stations should consider whether they really want to sell those candidates all the time that they ask for – knowing that some of the less financially secure candidates may be delaying their buys until the last days before the primary. Equal opportunities will require that you fit in spots from those late-arriving candidates, so make sure you have sufficient advertising inventory in reserve in the weeks leading up to the election to make room for commercials from these candidates whose funding may not cover ads until late in the primary period.

There are issues to consider about free time for candidates. As we’ve written before, the FCC has determined that most interview programs where the content is under station control – even those that have little news value on the normal day – are deemed “news interview programs” exempt from equal time rules if they routinely cover issues of public importance.  Bona fide news programming is also exempt from equal time. Thus, equal time is normally only an issue in making sure that all candidates have equal opportunities to buy spot time, and in those rare circumstances where a candidate appears on a purely entertainment program. In these days of media overload, candidates are looking for these nontraditional means of exposure in broadcast programming. So use care if a candidate appears as a character on a scripted TV show, or walks into the announcing booth at a local football game asking to do the play by play for a few minutes, or (especially when dealing with state and local candidates, see our posts here and here) where the candidate is a host of a broadcast program – as, depending on how these situations are handled, all could give rise to equal opportunity claims.

Another area where broadcasters need to pay attention is in connection with third party ads dealing with Federal issues.  Sometimes the ads are subtle digs at the positions that a potential candidate is taking (“call Congressman X and tell him that he should stop voting for bills that are bankrupting the country”), and sometimes they are more direct attacks on the potential candidate.  Sometimes they don’t directly address a particular politician at all, but are instead directed at an issue being debated in Congress.  In any case, if the ads are dealing with Federal candidates or other issues being considered by the US House of Representatives or Senate, then they are Federal issue ads on which the station must maintain full online public file information, similar to that which is kept for any candidate advertising – the full schedule of advertising that is to be run, the class of time sold, the sponsor of the ad, and even the price that was paid for the spots (see our post here on the public file requirements for Federal issue ads).

We have also written, here, about issues concerning the content of these third-party ads, as stations can potentially have liability for defamatory content in those ads if the station knows or has reason to believe that the ads are in fact false. Being put on notice of the falsity of the ad by a letter from a representative of the candidate being attacked can constitute that reason to believe that the ad is false that, if it contains defamatory content, could theoretically result in liability to a station. Candidates who are attacked may be calling stations asking that ads from PACs and other third-parties be pulled from the airwaves, and stations need to have plans in place to be ready to evaluate and deal with such claims. While third-party ads do not get lowest unit rates, these ads can be more problematic than candidate ads as they potentially force stations to be judges of the truth of the content of those ads. Candidate-sponsored ads, on the other hand, cannot be censored, so stations have no liability for the broadcast content of those ads.

Finally, with the election season fast approaching, even stations not in early primary states should start planning.  Some stations are no doubt already selling long-term contracts that will still be in effect during the primary season.  Stations should be considering how to allocate the purchase price of these long-term contracts to reflect their actual seasonal value – rather than simply booking them as having a flat rate throughout the entire year – including the pre-election lowest unit rate periods. As we wrote in our Political Broadcasting Guide, the FCC allows you, in internal station documents, to allocate for lowest unit rate purposes, the purchase price of a long-term contract in a manner different than shown on invoices given to commercial clients, as long as that allocation more accurately reflects the seasonal value of the spots sold, adds up to the total purchase price of the package, and is not done simply to avoid the lowest unit rate periods.  Consult with your attorney to make sure that you properly apply this process, but it could save you money in the long term.

These are but a few of the political issues that broadcasters should be considering. So start thinking about the political issues that will arise as we enter this political season, and check out our Political Broadcasting Guide and the guides prepared by the NAB and many other organizations representing broadcasters – as you can never have enough perspective on these issues. These rules are complex, and many candidates are getting smarter about the how to use the rules to their advantage, so be prepared for the upcoming onslaught of political advertising.

Important Dates for Broadcasters in 2019 – A Broadcaster’s Calendar

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Wed 6 Feb 2019 5:33 pm

While the shutdown of the Federal government delayed FCC activities in January, with the government back in business (hopefully for the long term), we have put together a Calendar of Important Dates for Broadcasters for 2019, available here. The calendar highlights normal regulatory dates like those for Annual EEO Public Inspection File Reports, Quarterly Issues Programs Lists, Quarterly Children’s Television Reports, and Biennial Ownership Reports, it also includes dates relevant to the repacking of the TV spectrum and, something that we have not seen in the last 5 years, dates relevant to the radio license renewal cycle that begins this year. We also have the December start dates for the lowest unit rate windows for the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire primary. While this is not a comprehensive list of all regulatory dates that a broadcaster can expect, and while there can be some changes in these dates as the year goes on, it does provide a start keeping you on top of your regulatory burdens. Obviously, consult your own counsel for dates that affect your own station.

Broadcasting and Cable Political Window Begins September 7 For November Elections – A Refresher on the FCC’s Lowest Unit Charge Rules

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Thu 6 Sep 2018 5:03 pm

With the lowest unit charge window for the November elections going into effect tomorrow (September 7), we thought that it was a good idea to review the basics FCC rules and policies affecting those charges. With this election, where control of Congress may well be hotly contested and may result in competitive elections across the country, your station needs to be ready to comply with all of the FCC’s political advertising rules. Lowest unit charges (or “Lowest Unit Rates”) guarantee that, in the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election, legally qualified candidates get the lowest rate for a spot that is then running on the station within any class of advertising time and particular daypart. Candidates get the benefit of all volume discounts without having to buy in volume – i.e., the candidate gets the same rate for buying one spot as your most favored advertiser gets for buying hundreds of spots of the same class. But there are many other aspects to the lowest unit rates, and stations need to be sure that they get these rules right.

It is a common misperception that a station has one lowest unit rate, when in fact almost every station will have several – if not dozens of lowest unit rates – one lowest unit rate for each class of time in each daypart. Even at the smallest radio station, there are probably several different classes of advertising spots. For instance, there will be different rates for spots running in morning drive than for those spots that run in the middle of the night. Each time period for which the station charges a differing rate is a class of time that has its own lowest unit rate. On television stations, there are often classes based not only on daypart, but on the individual program. Similarly, if a station sells different rotations, each rotation on the station is its own class, with its own lowest unit rates (e.g. a 6 AM to Noon rotation is a different class than a 6 AM to 6 PM rotation, and both are a different class from a 24 hour rotator – and each can have its own lowest unit rate). Even in the same time period, there can be preemptible and non-preemptible time, each with its own set of charges resulting in different classes of time, each with its own lowest unit rate. Any class of spots that run in a unique time period, with a unique rotation or unique rights attached to it (e.g., different levels of preemptibility, different make-good rights, etc.), will have a different lowest unit rate. Stations need to review each class of time sold on their station, find the lowest rate charged to a commercial advertiser for a spot of the same class that is running at the same time that the candidate wants to buy a spot, and that lowest rate will be what the candidate is charged.

One question that still comes up with surprising regularity is whether these rates apply to state and local candidates, as well as Federal candidates. Indeed they do – so if your station is running advertising for candidates for mayor or city council; or for governor or the state senate; or even for the board of education, municipal court judge, or state attorney general – they and any other candidate in any public election for which your station chooses to accept advertising gets lowest unit rates. See our past articles on this topic here and here.

In modern political elections, where PACs, Super PACs and other non-candidate interest groups are buying much political advertising time, broadcasters need to remember that these spots don’t require lowest unit rates. Even if the picture or recognizable voice of the candidate that the PAC is supporting appears in the ad, spots that are sponsored by an independent organization not authorized by the candidate do not get lowest unit rates (note, however, that spots purchased by independent groups featuring the voice or picture of the candidate may trigger public file and equal opportunities obligations for the station if the station decides to run those spots).  Stations can charge these advertisers anything that the station wants for non-candidate ads – no need to stick to lowest unit rates.

From time to time stations may face the one exception to the above paragraph, where political parties are requesting lowest unit charges. In some cases, parties may in fact be entitled to these rates – but only where the spot features the recognizable voice or picture of the candidate and the party is using specific types of donations to pay for the ad.  These donations are ones that are subject to political campaign donation limitations (known as “hard money”).  To get lowest unit rates, the advertising purchases must be authorized and “coordinated” with a candidate (and, in Federal races (and in several states that have adopted laws on the subject), the spots should make that coordination clear with the “I approved this message tag” or, under some state laws, some variant of the tag that discloses the coordination. Not all party spots are entitled to this treatment – only this special class of coordinated expenditures – and stations are entitled to get written confirmation from the party or the candidate that the expenditures are coordinated under the election laws. If not coordinated, the parties get charged the same as any other third-party organization.

Various advertising sales packages, and how they are factored into lowest unit rate calculations, also seem to lead to many questions by broadcasters. Candidates cannot be forced to buy single-station packages to get low unit rates. Instead, the package must be broken down by the station into a price per spot for each class of spot that is contained in the package. That is done by allocating the package price to the various spots of each class that are contained in the package. Then the allocated rates, on a unit basis, are compared to other spots of the same class that have been sold on the station either on their own or in other packages to determine if the spots from this package have any impact on the station’s lowest unit rates. This allocation is done in an internal station record, which does not need to go into the public file, and does not need to be revealed to the candidate. Other than the station, only the FCC will see this allocation if they decide to conduct some sort of audit. We wrote more about this process of allocating spots in a package here.

And these are just some of the myriad issues that arise in computing lowest unit rates. Stations need to be familiar with these rules, and apply them accurately through the lowest unit rate window. Check with your own legal advisor to discuss the specifics of these issues as they arise as they are often very difficult to apply in the real world.  Some of the other situations that arise with lowest unit rates, and with other political issues that come up in any election season, are covered in our Political Broadcasting Guide, available here.  This article in an update of an article from a series that we did several years ago on Political Broadcasting Basics, which we may update from time to time over the next few weeks.  But until we post the updates, you can find the original articles on our blog by clicking on these links:  equal opportunities, reasonable access, the no-censorship provision that governs candidate ads, and the potential for station liability for untruthful statements made in third party ads.

More September Regulatory Dates – Effective Date of New Application Fees, Filing Deadline for TV Shared Services Agreements, Lowest Unit Rate For September Election and Reminder on Repacking Requirements

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Tue 28 Aug 2018 1:48 pm

Yesterday, we wrote about the regulatory dates coming up for broadcasters in September.  Even though that was an extensive list, we realized later that we left a few off.  So here are a few more issues to consider in September.  Plus, the FCC yesterday reminded repacked TV stations of all of the requirements for TV stations involved in the repacking of the TV band following the Incentive Auction which, as we noted in our post yesterday, formally begins this month.

One date that we overlooked was the effective date for a general increase in FCC application fees – those fees that commercial broadcasters pay every time they file an application for a construction permit, approval of a purchase or sale of a station, a license renewal, an STA or many other requests for FCC action.  As we wrote here, the FCC recently announced that the fees were going up to reflect inflation.  Last week, the FCC issued a Public Notice announcing that those new fees are effective on September 4.  So commercial stations filing applications on September 4 or afterward need to remember to pay the new fees, or risk having their applications returned.

Another obvious date that we omitted from the long list of September regulatory dates is the first day of the Lowest Unit Rate window for the November election.  45 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election, political candidates (whether Federal, state or local – see our post here) can only be charged the lowest unit rate that any commercial advertiser is paying for advertising spots of the same class that are running during the same time period.  See our articles here and here for more information about the lowest unit charge window which, for the November election, starts on September 7.  For more information about political broadcasting rules generally, see our Political Broadcasting Guide.

A somewhat less obvious date is the deadline for filing TV shared services agreements.  In its 2017 order reconsidering the FCC’s decision in its last Quadrennial Review of the ownership rules, the FCC decided to retain the previously announced requirement that TV stations file shared services agreements with the FCC.  We wrote about that obligation here, addressing the broad definition that the FCC gave to a shared services agreement.  The FCC gave stations 180 days to comply for any agreements that were already in effect at the time the new rule became effective (new agreements being required to be filed “in a timely fashion” once entered into).  Time flies, and that 180-day deadline is now upon us, on September 19.

Finally, the FCC on Monday released a Public Notice setting out all the deadlines that must be met by TV stations that are being repacked following the Incentive Auction.  With September 14 starting the testing period for TV stations assigned to move to their new channels in Phase 1 of the repacking, this notice is very timely.  The notice talks about the deadlines in the transition and the various notices and public education requirements that stations early in the repacking schedule should be contemplating right now.  The Public Notice also notes that any Phase 1 station that is unlikely to meet the required November 30 deadline for completion of their transition to their new channel must file an extension by September 4.

So add these to the list of September dates that we gave you yesterday, as well as any other specific deadline that may apply to your own station, and you can see that the academic year will begin with a bang.  Get ready for a busy month ahead!

Dealing with a Local Political Candidate Who Appears in a Spot Advertisement for a Commercial Business

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Thu 31 May 2018 5:28 pm

With election season upon us again, I’ve had one question that has come up repeatedly in the last few weeks about local candidates – usually running for state or municipal offices – who appear in advertisements for local businesses that they own or manage. Often times, these individuals will routinely appear in a business’ ads outside of election season, and the candidate simply wants to continue to appear on their business’ ads during the election as well. We wrote about this question in an article published two years ago, and since the question has been coming up again, it is worth revisiting the subject. What is a station to do when a local advertiser decides to run for office?

While we have many times written about what happens when a broadcast station’s on-air employee runs for office (see, for instance, our articles here, here and here), we have addressed the question less often about the advertiser who is also a candidate. If a candidate’s recognizable voice or, for TV, image appears on a broadcast station in a way that is not negative (e.g. it is not in an ad attacking that candidate), outside of an exempt program (in other words outside of a news or news interview program which, as we wrote here, is a very broad category of programming exempt from the equal time rules) that appearance is a “use” by the political candidate. “Uses” can arise well outside the political sphere, so Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were pulled from TV when he was running for office, as were any re-runs of The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice featuring Donald Trump. An appearance by a candidate in a commercial for his or her local business is a “use” which needs to be included in a station’s political file (providing all the information about the sponsor, schedule and price of the ad that you would for any pure political buy). But that does not necessarily mean that a station needs to pull the ad from the air.

As a commercial for a business is usually a paid spot, where the station is receiving money to air the ad (and not an unpaid one like the appearance in an entertainment program where the station does not get paid to air its comedy program or movie in which a candidate appears), a “use” arising in a paid commercial gives rise to equal opportunities for other opposing candidates to buy time on the station. The station will not usually be required to provide free time to opposing candidates (but watch for candidate appearances in PSAs, as that might give rise to free time for opposing candidates). If the station has plenty of commercial inventory and does not mind selling spots to the opposing candidate for the lowest unit rates that apply during the political windows (45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election) to spots purchased by a candidate’s authorized campaign committee (the opposing candidate gets lowest unit rate for a spot run in connection with his or her campaign, even if the commercial business bought the spot featuring their employee-candidate at regular commercial rates), a station may decide to continue to air the business spots with the candidate’s appearance. But if inventory is tight, or the station is not selling political ads to candidates in a particular state or local race, the station may want to tell the business that the candidate can’t appear in the business’ spots once the candidate becomes legally qualified, as the running of those spots with the candidates would require the station to provide equal time to the opposing candidates.

Note that the “no censorship” provision of the Communications Act and the lowest unit rate provisions likely do not apply to the business spots even though they contain the voice or image of a candidate. That is because these spots are not uses by the candidate or the candidate’s authorized campaign committee which are covered by the rules providing for lowest unit rates and the “no censorship” provisions of the law. As the commercial spots are not by the candidate or his or her political committee, but instead they are commercials by a business that happen to be “uses,” normal commercial rates can be applied.

Note, also, that business spots that advertise a business in which the candidate’s name appears, but where the candidate him or herself do not appear by voice or picture, do not trigger any equal opportunity issues. It is the recognizable voice or picture of the candidate that triggers the equal opportunity and public file issues. For those of us here in the DC area, we are accustomed to seeing ads for the local Volvo dealer even during election season, even though that dealership is named after a politician currently serving in Congress.

As in all areas of political broadcasting, any analysis of the implications of any on-air appearance of a candidate can be a very nuanced matter, and small changes in the facts can result in big changes in the legal conclusions that apply. So if these situations arise, consult with the station’s legal counsel before making any decision as to how to treat these kinds of ads. This article is just meant to note that there may be options for dealing with the candidate-advertiser if he or she wants to stay on their business’ spots during an election period, depending on the station’s circumstances. For more general information about the rules that apply to political broadcasting, see our Guide to Political Broadcasting, here.

Dealing with a Local Political Candidate Who Appears in a Spot Advertisement for a Commercial Business

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Thu 31 May 2018 5:28 pm

With election season upon us again, I’ve had one question that has come up repeatedly in the last few weeks about local candidates – usually running for state or municipal offices – who appear in advertisements for local businesses that they own or manage. Often times, these individuals will routinely appear in a business’ ads outside of election season, and the candidate simply wants to continue to appear on their business’ ads during the election as well. We wrote about this question in an article published two years ago, and since the question has been coming up again, it is worth revisiting the subject. What is a station to do when a local advertiser decides to run for office?

While we have many times written about what happens when a broadcast station’s on-air employee runs for office (see, for instance, our articles here, here and here), we have addressed the question less often about the advertiser who is also a candidate. If a candidate’s recognizable voice or, for TV, image appears on a broadcast station in a way that is not negative (e.g. it is not in an ad attacking that candidate), outside of an exempt program (in other words outside of a news or news interview program which, as we wrote here, is a very broad category of programming exempt from the equal time rules) that appearance is a “use” by the political candidate. “Uses” can arise well outside the political sphere, so Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were pulled from TV when he was running for office, as were any re-runs of The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice featuring Donald Trump. An appearance by a candidate in a commercial for his or her local business is a “use” which needs to be included in a station’s political file (providing all the information about the sponsor, schedule and price of the ad that you would for any pure political buy). But that does not necessarily mean that a station needs to pull the ad from the air.

As a commercial for a business is usually a paid spot, where the station is receiving money to air the ad (and not an unpaid one like the appearance in an entertainment program where the station does not get paid to air its comedy program or movie in which a candidate appears), a “use” arising in a paid commercial gives rise to equal opportunities for other opposing candidates to buy time on the station. The station will not usually be required to provide free time to opposing candidates (but watch for candidate appearances in PSAs, as that might give rise to free time for opposing candidates). If the station has plenty of commercial inventory and does not mind selling spots to the opposing candidate for the lowest unit rates that apply during the political windows (45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election) to spots purchased by a candidate’s authorized campaign committee (the opposing candidate gets lowest unit rate for a spot run in connection with his or her campaign, even if the commercial business bought the spot featuring their employee-candidate at regular commercial rates), a station may decide to continue to air the business spots with the candidate’s appearance. But if inventory is tight, or the station is not selling political ads to candidates in a particular state or local race, the station may want to tell the business that the candidate can’t appear in the business’ spots once the candidate becomes legally qualified, as the running of those spots with the candidates would require the station to provide equal time to the opposing candidates.

Note that the “no censorship” provision of the Communications Act and the lowest unit rate provisions likely do not apply to the business spots even though they contain the voice or image of a candidate. That is because these spots are not uses by the candidate or the candidate’s authorized campaign committee which are covered by the rules providing for lowest unit rates and the “no censorship” provisions of the law. As the commercial spots are not by the candidate or his or her political committee, but instead they are commercials by a business that happen to be “uses,” normal commercial rates can be applied.

Note, also, that business spots that advertise a business in which the candidate’s name appears, but where the candidate him or herself do not appear by voice or picture, do not trigger any equal opportunity issues. It is the recognizable voice or picture of the candidate that triggers the equal opportunity and public file issues. For those of us here in the DC area, we are accustomed to seeing ads for the local Volvo dealer even during election season, even though that dealership is named after a politician currently serving in Congress.

As in all areas of political broadcasting, any analysis of the implications of any on-air appearance of a candidate can be a very nuanced matter, and small changes in the facts can result in big changes in the legal conclusions that apply. So if these situations arise, consult with the station’s legal counsel before making any decision as to how to treat these kinds of ads. This article is just meant to note that there may be options for dealing with the candidate-advertiser if he or she wants to stay on their business’ spots during an election period, depending on the station’s circumstances. For more general information about the rules that apply to political broadcasting, see our Guide to Political Broadcasting, here.

It’s Political Broadcasting Season Again – What Broadcast Stations Should Be Thinking About Now, Before the Lowest Unit Rate Windows Open

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Thu 8 Mar 2018 6:09 pm

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.

As that article and another that we wrote here make clear, there are many other issues that stations need to be considering outside the windows, as once a candidate is legally qualified, virtually all of the other political rules apply. A candidate becomes legally qualified once they have filed the necessary paperwork to qualify for a place on the ballot (and, in some cases, to write-in candidates as well – see our article here). Once they are legally qualified, the reasonable access, equal opportunities, sponsorship and disclosure rules, including all public file rules, apply.

So, for candidates for Federal offices, reasonable access requirements apply as soon as a candidate is legally qualified. That means that the candidate is entitled to have access for advertising in all classes and dayparts on all commercial stations. While there may be a bit more flexibility in providing that access early in a campaign than there is closer to Election Day as there are more opportunities to provide that access, nevertheless stations need to pay attention to candidate requests. See our article here for more information about reasonable access.

Equal opportunities also apply as soon as a candidate is legally qualified. So if you sell advertising time to one candidate in a political race (local, state or Federal as equal opportunities apply to all candidates for public office – see our article here), you have to provide equal access to all opposing candidates. Free time must also be provided to one candidate if given to another outside of an exempt program (exempt programs including bona fide news and news interview programs – see our article about these consideration, written before the last Presidential election here).

Other equal time issues arise in connection with employees of the station who decide to become candidates – even for local office. See our article here.   Equal opportunities issues can also arise in connection with a local advertiser who appears in his or her own commercials, and decides to become a candidate for political office. See our article here for some issues to consider if this situation arises in your market.

In addition to these matters, political file issues arise well before the opening of the political window. For candidates, once they have become legally qualified, any “use” by that candidate needs to be noted in the public file (a “use” being an appearance on the station of the candidate’s recognizable voice or likeness outside of an exempt program). Issue advertising – both state and Federal – also has political file disclosure obligations that arise outside of political windows (with Federal issues advertising having much greater disclosure obligations almost identical to those of candidates). With all new political documents now needing to be uploaded to the online public files of both radio and TV stations, these political files are subject to much more public (and FCC) scrutiny.

These are but some of the issues broadcasters should be thinking about in what is likely to be a very active political year. You should be talking with your station’s attorney and sales staff now to make sure that everyone is ready to take care of the potential tidal wave of political advertising that may be arriving in the coming months, without running afoul of FCC rules.

Political Broadcasting and Programmatic Buying – Issues to Consider

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Mon 11 Dec 2017 5:22 pm

The week before last, Bobby Baker, the head of the FCC’s Office of Political Programming and the acknowledged guru on political broadcasting issues, and I conducted a webinar for 20 state broadcast associations discussing the FCC rules regarding political advertising and related issues. We have done this seminar every other year for quite some time to help broadcasters prepare for an upcoming election year. Every time we conduct the session, we are faced with some new questions, usually not because the FCC rules have changed, but instead because new advertising practices have arisen in the industry. This year, one of the issues that prompted a question from the audience dealt with “programmatic advertising” – the question being how advertising bought through various programmatic platforms would play into the political broadcasting analysis that each station must conduct to prepare for the political season (including questions of political rates and access rights that might be affected by programmatic sales).

While most of the principles governing the FCC rules on political broadcasting are relatively established (and many are summarized in our Political Broadcasting Guide available here), new advertising practices and opportunities always raise questions as to how those established rules are to be applied. Programmatic buying of advertising time is one of those areas where these questions have arisen in recent years. In the last few years, programmatic buying has become the buzzword in broadcast advertising circles for both radio and TV. It is intended to make ad buying easier and more akin to the experience that ad buyers have when they place online advertising, allowing most of the buying process to take place from the buyer’s computer, anywhere and at any time, often without directly engaging with a station account rep.

While programmatic buying is becoming more and more common in broadcast circles, it is difficult to easily categorize it and describe how it affects a station’s political broadcasting obligations, as what is called “programmatic buying” comes in so many different flavors. Not only does the concept mean different things on different platforms, it is also being provided by all sorts of different companies, from rep firms, to broadcast technology companies, to companies that specialize in specific types of advertising – like remnant ad sales (i.e. sales of unsold advertising inventory on broadcast stations). And some station owners are signing up with multiple providers – sometimes using these multiple platforms for the sale of advertising at the same station. Depending on how the particular platform works, the effect on the station’s political advertising practices, including the lowest unit rates to be charged by the station for political time in the political windows (45 days before the primary and 60 days before the general election), can vary.

The computerized sale of remnant advertising – where the providers of the programmatic buying give advertisers the opportunity to buy left-over advertising on multiple stations so as to reach a total audience in the market in which the stations operate – is akin to systems developed years ago. We wrote about the FCC’s considerations of such remnant advertising platforms many years ago, here.   The sales of remnant ads packaged with remnant advertising on other stations tend to raise one set of issues. This kind of advertising – sold in packages, where advertisers are offered delivery of a certain number of advertising impressions in a given market, where that delivery comes from placement of ads on multiple stations – may be the least problematic for individual stations in their political broadcasting compliance.

Because the spots are usually packaged with multiple stations to give the advertiser the number of advertising impressions that they seek in a given market or markets, these ads have no impact on the lowest unit rate on any one station (as ads that are sold in a package on multiple stations do not affect the lowest unit rates on any individual station in the package, although such combination packages on multiple stations must be disclosed and made available to candidates by the company making such combination sales). Moreover, as remnant ads can usually run at almost any time in a broadcaster’s schedule (they are usually not run in fixed programs or at specific times), and are usually very preemptible, the ads are usually in advertising classes not very attractive to candidates who want certainty as to when their ads will run, further minimizing their impact on most station’s political broadcasting sales. But sellers of these packages of remnant advertising may themselves be subject to political rules (as the Commission has traditionally applied such rules to “unwired networks”), so the sellers need to be cognizant of their own political broadcasting obligations.

Other forms of programmatic buying can be more significant for political advertising and need to be carefully tracked by broadcasters. Some of the programmatic systems let advertisers use computerized systems to essentially buy any advertising time that is available in a station’s inventory. Advertisers can in effect have access to a station’s traffic system and schedule their own advertising schedules, and can pick and choose among the rates available to advertisers in a station’s traffic systems. It’s this ability to pick and choose what the advertiser wants that could raise political broadcasting issues. If the programmatic deals allow discounts off of a station’s rates for specific classes of time, either simply because they are booked through the programmatic system or because of the volume of spots bought by the advertiser, these discounts could affect the lowest unit rates of the stations in the classes of time bought by the advertiser using the programmatic system.

The ability of any advertiser to get access to the station’s ad schedule to schedule their own ads toward the end of an election season could also affect a station’s ability to squeeze in political ads as necessary to meet reasonable access and equal opportunities obligations. A commercial advertiser using a programmatic platform to place a big advertising buy scheduled to run in the last days before an election could disrupt the ability of a station to make time available to candidates that the station is obligated to provide because of equal opportunity and reasonable access requirements. And, if political advertisers themselves use the programmatic systems to buy and schedule advertising, all sorts of issues could arise, especially to the extent that such ads are bought with higher protection levels where they preempt political ads, or simply because they have other impacts on political schedules that stations need to be tracking.

The contracts and practices of providers of programmatic advertising need to be carefully reviewed to assess the potential for issues to arise in a political broadcasting context. If the programmatic network is used by political and issue advertisers, stations need to be sure that they are getting timely notice of the ad buys, and all the necessary paperwork about the buyer, so that the station can meet its political file obligations. As disclosures of political ad buys often require more information than that is received from the typical ad buyer (especially for third-party political ad buyers from whom information about their principal officer and directors is required, as is the identification of the political issue being addressed), the systems must be able to provide that information.

Generally, programmatic platforms should also be reviewed so that buys made through the system otherwise comply with all other station legal obligations that, once upon a time in the distant past when broadcasters used printed contracts, would have been expressed in the terms and conditions for sales which were often printed on the back of the sales contracts. We have written about the issues that can arise from the demise of the printed advertising contract. See for instance our article, here, where these issues were discussed in the context of the required FCC advertising non-discrimination certification, which also needs to be worked into the programmatic buying process.

We’ve worked with some providers of programmatic systems to help design their systems so that stations that use them can assure that their inventory can be controlled during the election season, and we have looked at agreements from providers for broadcast station clients. These are not simple deals that can be entered into without thought. Any broadcaster using any programmatic buying system needs to carefully review the system that they are using, and determine if there are any potential political broadcasting issues – and to assure that the contracts with the providers give stations the rights that they need to assure compliance with political broadcasting rules (and other FCC obligations).

As these programs and platforms can each pose their own issues, stations should consult with their communications counsel on how any program may impact their political obligations. The FCC’s Office of Political Programming, who gave me their thoughts on these issues as I was writing this article, are also very willing to discuss the issues, and are quite helpful in walking through the implications of any sales platform. Make sure that you understand the implications as you use these programs. This is certainly true for the upcoming busy 2018 election year and, with issue advertising becoming more and more a part of the broadcast landscape even outside of election years, these considerations can arise at any time. So look carefully at the legal issues that can arise from any programmatic ad platform.

FCC Political Broadcasting Rules for Write-In Candidates

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Thu 19 Oct 2017 3:22 pm

In these last few weeks before the many municipal elections that will be occurring in November in states across the country, I have recently received several questions about a broadcaster’s legal obligations toward write-in candidates who want to run advertising on a radio or television station. Under FCC precedent, all legally qualified candidates (including those running for state and local offices, see our article here) must be provided lowest unit rates, equal opportunities to purchase advertising time matching purchases by their opponents and, when they do buy time, the no censorship rules apply to their ads. For Federal candidates, they also have a right of reasonable access. But is a write-in candidate a “legally qualified candidate?” 

In most cases, the question as to whether a candidate is legally qualified is relatively easy.  The station looks at whether the person has the requisite qualifications for the office that they are seeking (age, residency, citizenship, not a felon, etc.), and then looks to see whether they have qualified for a place on the ballot for the upcoming election or primary.  In most cases, qualifying for a place on the ballot is a function of filing certain papers with a state or local election authority, in some places after having received a certain number of signatures on a petition supporting the candidacy.  Once the local election authority receives the papers (and does whatever evaluation may be required to determine if the filer is qualified for a place on the ballot), a person is legally qualified and entitled to all the FCC political broadcasting rights of a candidate: equal opportunities, no censorship, reasonable access if they are Federal candidates, and lowest unit rates during the limited LUC windows (45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election).  But, for write-in candidates, there are different rules that are applied, as there is no election authority to certify that the requisite papers have been filed for a place on the ballot.  Instead, in these situations, a person claiming to be a candidate must make a “substantial showing” that he or she is a bona fide candidate – that he has been doing all the things that a candidate for election would do. What does that mean?

Section 73.1940(f) of the Commission’s rules sets out what a substantial showing needs to include.  The rule states:

The term substantial showing of a bona fide candidacy as used in paragraphs (b) of this section means evidence that the person claiming to be a candidate has engaged to a substantial degree in activities commonly associated with political campaigning. Such activities normally would include making campaign speeches, distributing campaign literature, issuing press releases, maintaining a campaign committee, and establishing campaign headquarters (even though the headquarters in some instances might be the residence of the candidate or his or her campaign manager). Not all of the listed activities are necessarily required in each case to demonstrate a substantial showing, and there may be activities not listed herein which would contribute to such a showing.

Stations are entitled to ask a purported candidate to make that substantial showing before they accord the candidate all the rights that he or she might be entitled to under the rules.  Stations will looks at factors including whether the candidate has had campaign rallies. Is the candidate making speeches and campaign appearances throughout the area where the election is being held? Is there campaign literature that is being distributed on his or her behalf? Does the candidate have any campaign offices or campaign workers?  Is the campaign more than a website?  A station is entitled to ask for this evidence, and then needs to review the evidence, probably with the aid of counsel and possibly with the informal advice of the FCC (whose Political Broadcasting Office is usually quite helpful in working through issues like this), to determine whether the write-in candidate meets the substantial showing test.

The determination is very fact based. A few years ago, an individual from a fringe group launched a write-in campaign for Congress in a Missouri district where he resided. As he made speeches in the district, had an office there, and put up signs and passed out literature there (and his campaign was covered by the local print publications), many stations deemed him to be a legally qualified candidate and ran his advertising. A few years later, that same individual purportedly launched a campaign for an open US Senate seat in the same state. But that candidate did nothing to show that he was a bona fide state-wide candidate – showing no evidence of a statewide election campaign. Given the different factual circumstance, the Commission informally determined in that case that he was not a bona fide candidate for the Senate as he had not made a substantial showing of his candidacy for the statewide office.

If the candidate does pass the substantial showing test, then all of the political broadcasting rules apply – just as if the candidate had qualified for a place on the ballot. But if the purported candidate has done nothing more than say “I’m a candidate” and then decided to buy advertising time on a broadcast station, it is likely that the station need not sell him or her advertising time. Again, it depends on the facts of the situation, so analyze those facts carefully and discuss these issues with counsel familiar with the precedent in this area. For more information about political broadcasting rules, see our Guide to Political Broadcasting, here.

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