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Indian E-music – The right mix of Indian Vibes… » political file


Undoing the Past – New FCC Rescinds Rulings on Noncommercial Ownership Reports, Political Broadcasting Sponsorship Disclosure and Shared Services Agreements

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Sun 5 Feb 2017 6:17 pm

With the change in administration at the FCC, there are opportunities for certain actions to be taken very quickly, without going through the full process of a rulemaking requiring public notice of the proposed rule change and time for public comment.  At the end of this last week, we saw the FCC’s Media Bureau take actions in three different proceedings directly applicable to broadcasters to undo what had been done during the prior administration – rescinding actions with respect to noncommercial ownership reports, the disclosure of information about the sponsor of political advertisements, and on the treatment of TV assignment and transfer applications for television stations where shared service agreements are involved.  Below, we’ll give a few details about each of those actions.

Two of the rescinded actions were January rulings by the Media Bureau which, at the time they were issued, drew statements of concern from then-Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly.  The Republican Commissioners argued that the actions should have been taken by the full Commission, not the Media Bureau.  As these decisions were not final (appeals can be taken or reconsideration requests can be filed within 30 days of an action, and the full Commission, on its own, can set aside a staff action within 40 days), the Media Bureau, presumably at the urging of the new Chairman, set these actions aside for further consideration by the full Commission.

The first action set aside on Thursday evening was the denial of reconsideration of the requirement that every individual who is deemed to hold an attributable interest in a noncommercial broadcast station licensee get an FRN – an FCC identification number that requires the submission of a Social Security Number to the FCC (the rule does provide an alternative to the FRN which also requires the submission of significant personal information).  As we wrote here, in early January, the Media Bureau denied a request for reconsideration of these new ownership requirements (even though the reconsideration request was filed with the full Commission) – finding that the appeals raised no new issues and thus could be summarily rejected by the Media Bureau.  Noncommercial licensees had objected to these requirements as they could be seen as invasive by Board members of public institutions that hold FCC licenses – especially by Board members at state universities.  The requirements could require that licensees gather this information from state governors or other prominent citizens who are on university boards – even though these Board members have little or no direct contact with the stations themselves.  Both Republican Commissioners objected to the Bureau’s dismissal of the reconsideration request (both indicating that the information gathering was unnecessary, and that they would review the matter once they became the majority), and a bill was even introduced in Congress to overturn the requirement (see our article here).  While the order on Thursday simply overturns the Media Bureau decision denying reconsideration of the order, meaning the original order itself still stands, we would certainly expect that the reconsideration petition will now be reviewed by the Commissioners and, given the prior statements of the now-majority Republican Commissioners, will likely not be long for this world, and may well be acted on before the Biennial Ownership Reports requiring this information are due on December 1.

The second area for rescission dealt with January orders by the Media Bureau issuing admonitions to numerous TV licensees for purported violations of the FCC’s public file rules for political and issue ads.  We wrote about those decisions here.   The Media Bureau admonished numerous stations for not identifying in their public files all issues mentioned in political ads, and not inquiring about the full list of executive officers or directors of the sponsor (information also required to be in the public file).  While the Republican Commissioners had indicated that they thought that they could have reached an agreement on the issues addressed in these cases, their belief was that the issues should have been tackled by the Commissioners, not by the Media Bureau.  By rescinding the Media Bureau orders, that is apparently what will happen with these issues now.

The final broadcast issue that was undone on Friday was a Media Bureau policy statement, which we wrote about here and here, issued in 2014, that set processing standards for television acquisitions that included stations involved in any sort of sharing agreement with other local stations, including any form of Shared Service Agreement.  These standards were adopted by the Media Bureau and had the effect of prohibiting certain Shared Services Agreements, even though the Commissioners themselves had not determined what was permitted and what was forbidden.  In fact, even in the 2016 ownership decision, the Commission still did not adopt any blanket prohibition against any type of Shared Service Agreement – instead deciding to further study those agreements (and to require the filing of such agreements, an obligation that the NAB has asked the FCC to reconsider).  As the 2014 processing standards were adopted by the Media Bureau without Commission vote, and were merely processing standards not rules, the new administration apparently concluded that they could be rescinded in the same way that they had been adopted – by the Bureau with no public input.

These actions make clear that things are moving fast at the new FCC.  We’ll be watching to see what is next.

A Presentation on the Obligations of Small Market TV Broadcasters to Begin To Upload Their Political Files into Their Online Public File as of July 1

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Wed 11 Jun 2014 5:06 pm

TV stations in markets outside of the Top 50, and stations in the Top 50 markets that are not affiliated with one of the Big 4 networks, need to begin to upload new material placed into their political files into their Online Public File as of July 1 – just a few weeks away.  David O’Connor of my firm and I conducted a webinar for television broadcasters from 7 states last week, where we discussed this new obligation for smaller TV stations, and talked about what documents are supposed to go into the political file.  We also reviewed the content of the NAB forms that are helpful in tracking the documentation that needs to go into the political file.  The slides from that presentation are available here.

 As we wrote in April, the FCC has already reminded broadcasters of this new obligation as of July 1, and there does not appear to be any potential that the obligation will be changed between now and the July 1 effective date.  Broadcasters need not upload political file contents that were placed into the file before July 1 (they should continue to be kept in the station’s paper file for the two-year required holding period).  But, starting on July 1, all new political file documents need to be placed into the station’s Online Public file accessible through the FCC website.In hte webinar, we also discussed the recent FCC complaints filed against stations in the Top 50 markets, alleging that their online public files were not complete.  We summarized those complaints, and the FCC reactions to those complaints, here and here.  The complaints demonstrate that the compliance of broadcasters is being monitored.  So be sure that you are ready to start uploading political file materials to your online public file as of July 1. 

One question did come up after the webinar about the retention of the paper file after the July 1 deadline.  What we were saying in the webinar is that the documents that were in the paper political file before the July 1 deadline don’t need to be digitized and put online. They only need to be kept in their current form in a residual paper file for two years from the date they were created.  For the post-July 1 documents, they only need to be online. No residual paper file needs to be kept for the post-July 1 documents.  However, recognizing that there is an immediate need for candidates to be able to review these files in some cases, stations need to be sure that there is some backup electronic version of the online political file just in case the FCC site goes down.  See our Q and A on the online public file generally, here, which discusses the obligations for back-up files. 

So small stations need to get ready to meet this important deadline, as their files may well be watched!

Online Public File Requirement for TV Broadcasters Effective August 2, 2012

Delivered... David Silverman | Scene | Thu 5 Jul 2012 5:30 pm

 

The FCC has announced that the obligation for television broadcast stations to post their public inspection files online will become effective August 2, 2012, absent a stay requested by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which has appealed the rule to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

Absent a stay, the rule requires full power and Class A television stations to post any NEW public file documents online at an FCC-hosted website as of August 2nd.  Those broadcasters will have six months or until February 2, 2013 to post PRE-EXISTING public file documents online. 

The political public file, which is the subject of the NAB appeal, will be treated a bit differently.  NEW political public file documents must be posted effective August 2 by only the top four network affiliated stations (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) in the top 50 markets. There is no requirement to post pre-existing political file documents online.

All other TV stations (i.e. non-network affiliated stations in the top 50 markets and ALL TV stations outside of the top 50 markets), do not have to post political public file documents online until July 1, 2014.

While it remains to be seen whether the NAB's request for a stay of these requirements will be granted, the FCC plans to schedule user testing and educational webinars in the near future to ensure that users know how to upload documents to the FCC's website intended for this purpose, and perhaps to ensure that the website can handle the anticipated traffic. 

While TV broadcasters should begin preparing for this requirement, it would be wise to stay tuned for further developments.

What is a Broadcaster to Do When Approached by an Ad Agency Buying Time for an Undisclosed Political Candidate?

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Thu 24 May 2012 1:26 pm

Does a broadcast station need to book a political ad buy for an agency purporting to be representing a candidate, but refusing to reveal who that candidate is? We’ve recently received this question from a number of broadcast stations in a number of states, as agencies seemingly are jockeying to tie up valuable commercial time in advance of what is likely to be a hotly contested election in November. This seems to be happening particularly with stations that have coverage areas that include parts of certain “swing states” in the Presidential election, or in states with crucial Congressional or Senatorial elections. It seems to us that, unless and until you know that there is a real candidate, there is no obligation for a station to book time for a hypothetical candidate or candidate to be named later.

Booking time for an unknown candidate raises numerous issues for a station. How can a station account for the sale of that time in its political file? If it doesn’t know who the candidate is, it can’t place the required information (which includes the candidate’s name) into the political file. Booking time for a political candidate gives rise to equal opportunities obligations, even outside the 45 and 60 days political windows. How can you determine to whom you owe equal time when the station itself doesn’t even know who the candidate is? And, if the agency even refuses to reveal if it is a Federal or state campaign for which it plans to buy time, making time available to an agency on behalf of an unknown candidate that turns out to be a state candidate may cause the station, through the application of equal opportunities, to have to sell time for a race to which it did not intend to provide access, or to open up dayparts to that state race when it did not intend to offer those dayparts to state candidates. In fact, without knowing the candidate, how can the station assess whether the candidate is legally qualified, or that the time is being purchased by an authorized candidate committee? 

A more difficult question involves giving out rates to agencies that don’t reveal the name of the candidate on whose behalf they are acting. Many stations may be willing to send out their political rate card and disclosure statement to an agency, even if they don’t know who the candidate is, in order to curry favor with the agency when the time actually comes for that agency to buy spots. Other stations may be more reluctant to do so as they don’t want to be sending detailed information about their least expensive rates to just anyone.  Of course, individual lowest unit rates may be available in the station’s public file (and soon, for TV stations, online). But that will reveal only specific rates for specific buys, not all rates for all of the station’s principal classes and dayparts as will be revealed in a full disclosure statement. The Commission has never declared the political rate card or a written political disclosure statement to be public documents that have to be provided to anyone who asks. In fact, the Commission has never even required that they be in writing – though most stations follow good practice and do put them in writing to ensure that they make the same disclosure to all candidates who ask, as required by the Commission.

Neither of these is an easy question, and these thoughts are just for stations to ponder in making decisions on these types of early political season calls. Stations should always check with their own counsel on questions like this – especially if faced with an insistent buyer who refuses to identify the candidate for whom they are buying.

The Impact of the Proposed DISCLOSE Campaign Reform Act on Broadcasters and Cable Operators – Lowest Unit Rates and Reasonable Access for Political Parties, On Line Political File, FCC Audits and More

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Fri 30 Apr 2010 2:33 pm

In reaction to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision invalidating restrictions on corporate spending on advertising and other messages explicitly endorsing or attacking political candidates (about which we wrote here), new legislation, called the DISCLOSE Act,  has just been introduced in both houses of Congress seeking to mitigate the perceived impact of the Court's decision.  While the announced goal of the legislation is aimed at disclosure of the individuals and companies who are trying to impact the political process, the draft legislation, if adopted would have significant impact on broadcasters and cable companies, including potentially extending lowest unit rates and reasonable access to Federal political party's campaign committees (and not just the candidates themselves).  The draft legislation also proposes lower Lowest Unit Rates in political races where there are significant independent expenditures, more disclosure by broadcasters through an on-line political file, and even mandates for audits by the FCC of the rates charged by television stations to political candidates.  The language could also be read as an expansion of the current applicability of the political rules to cable television - applying reasonable access to cable systems and lowest unit rates and equal opportunities to cable networks.  As Congressional leaders are proposing to move this legislation quickly (with votes before July 4) so that it can be in place for the coming Congressional elections, broadcasters and cable companies need to carefully consider the proposals so that they can be discussed with their Congressional representatives before the bills are voted on by Congress.

While much of the bill is intended to force disclosure of those sponsoring ads and otherwise trying to influence the political process, the portions of the bill that amend provisions of the Communications Act include the following:

  • An extension of Reasonable Access to require that broadcasters give reasonable access not just to Federal political candidates, but also to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  In recent years where the Democratic and Republican Congressional Campaign Committees have been big buyers of broadcast time.  The extension of reasonable access to these groups could put even greater demands on broadcast advertising time on stations in markets with hot races, as stations could not refuse to provide access to "all classes of time and all dayparts", as required by the reasonable access rules.  This could crowd out other advertisers, and even make it harder for ads for state elections (as state and local candidates have no reasonable access rights) in states where there are hotly contested races.
  • Extends the Reasonable Access requirements to require reasonable access to "reasonable amounts of time purchased at lowest unit rates."  The purpose of this change is not clear, as all political time must be sold to candidates at lowest unit rates in the 60 days before a general election and the 45 days before a primary. 
  • Extends the requirement for Lowest Unit Rates to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  Currently, the lowest unit charges apply only to the candidate's campaign committees, not to political parties.  Under the proposed language, LUC rates would also apply to the parties, and to groups like the Republican and Democratic National Campaign Committees
  • Extends the "no censorship" provisions to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  This change may be a positive for broadcasters.  As we have written before, a broadcast station cannot censor a candidate's ad.  But, as they have no power to reject a candidate's ad based on its contents, they have no liability should that ad contain material that could potentially be defamatory or otherwise subject the station to liability.  This proposed language would extend the no censorship rule to cover ads from Federal political parties, so that stations would not have liability for those ads either.  As many of the hardest hitting attack ads often come from these committees, if this legislation were to pass, stations would not have to worry about evaluating the truth or falsity of the committee's ads, as they would have no liability for the contents of the ads as they would be forbidden by law from rejecting the ads based on their contents.
  • Provides for a lower Lowest Unit Rate in races where there are independent expenditures by any group of more than $50,000.  If a corporation or other group spends $50,000 in any political race, then all stations would be required to charge all candidates in the race the lowest charge made for "the same amount of time in the last 180 days" - not just the lowest charge for the same class of time as is then currently running on the station.  First, this would force stations to look back 6 months to determine their lowest unit rates.  For a primary election in June or July, rates in the doldrums of January or February could set the June political rates.  Moreover, the legislation does not state that it would look at the lowest rate for the same "class" of time over the previous 180 days, but instead it talks only about the same "amount" of time.  It is unclear if this is an intentional attempt to make stations sell prime time spots at overnight rates, but the current language of the bill seems to avoid the traditional distinctions on spots being sold based on their class.
  • Forbids the preemption of advertising by a legally qualified candidate or national committee except for unforeseen circumstances.  This provision may well be intended to force stations to sell candidates advertising at their lowest nonpreemptible rates, and then treat the spots as they would much more expensive non-preemptible fixed position spots
  • Requires the FCC to conduct random audits during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Audits would have to be conducted as follows: 
    • 6 of the Top 50 TV markets
    • 3 of the markets 51-100
    • 3 of the markets rates 101-150
    • 3 markets below 150
    • Audits would be required of the 3 largest networks, 1 independent TV network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.  The language here, too, seems odd, as the requirements for audits are for "networks" of broadcast, cable and radio stations, not for local operators, and for an "independent television network" which would seem to be an inherently contradictory term - if a station is truly an independent, it is not affiliated with a network, so how can the FCC audit an "independent television network"?  It is unclear of whether this provision is requiring audits of the networks themselves, or of affiliates of the networks in the markets in which audits must be conducted. 
  • Requirements that stations keep on their website information about all requests for the purchase of broadcast time by candidates, political parties or other independent political groups. Right now, the rules specifically do not require that political files be kept online.

There is also a provision changing the definition section of the Section 315 of the Communications Act which sets out the lowest unit charge provisions of the Act, along with no censorship and equal opportunities, which currently apply to broadcasters and the operators of cable television systems.  The proposed changes would add to the definition of a broadcast stations the phrase "and a provider of cable or satellite television service", making clear that all such services are included in the lowest unit rate provisions of the rules - which might be read as an attempt to include cable television networks within the scope of the rules.  In fact, as provided above, the law requires an audit of a cable network, implying that they will be subject to the rules if this law is adopted.  The law also adds a reasonable access provision to Section 315, which would seem to extend the concept of reasonable access to cable as well as to broadcast. The clear intent is unstated, but given the definitional language used in the language of the bill, and the fact that this new provision dealing with reasonable access is added to Section 315 which applies to cable (as contrasted to the Section 312 reasonable access provisions which do not), the extension of reasonable access to cable is seemingly the impact of this language.

The bill also extends the "stand by your ad" provisions of the Federal Election law to ads by third party groups, so a spokesman for any third party group buying ad time in connection with a political campaign will be forced to appear on the ad and take "credit" for that ad.  Disclosure of the Top 5 contributors to non-candidate political committees would also be required by this bill.

It is clear that the DISCLOSE Act could fundamentally change the way that broadcasters and cable companies deal with political advertising during election periods.  With the push to decrease rates and increase access to the airwaves, there could well be a a significant reaction by those being regulated.  Given the more expansive reading of First Amendment rights from the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case which spurred this proposed legislation, it would be quite possible that some broadcast or cable group could choose to challenge the mandatory access rights given to political parties under these rules, or the very cheap rates for political ads that could be read into the provisions of this bill.  There will be much to debate on this legislation, and the language of the bill could very well change as it makes its way through the Congressional processes.  But there are many important issues to consider - and broadcasters need to be aware of their possible impact. 

The Impact of the Proposed DISCLOSE Campaign Reform Act on Broadcasters and Cable Operators – Lowest Unit Rates and Reasonable Access for Political Parties, On Line Political File, FCC Audits and More

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Fri 30 Apr 2010 2:33 pm

In reaction to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision invalidating restrictions on corporate spending on advertising and other messages explicitly endorsing or attacking political candidates (about which we wrote here), new legislation, called the DISCLOSE Act,  has just been introduced in both houses of Congress seeking to mitigate the perceived impact of the Court's decision.  While the announced goal of the legislation is aimed at disclosure of the individuals and companies who are trying to impact the political process, the draft legislation, if adopted would have significant impact on broadcasters and cable companies, including potentially extending lowest unit rates and reasonable access to Federal political party's campaign committees (and not just the candidates themselves).  The draft legislation also proposes lower Lowest Unit Rates in political races where there are significant independent expenditures, more disclosure by broadcasters through an on-line political file, and even mandates for audits by the FCC of the rates charged by television stations to political candidates.  The language could also be read as an expansion of the current applicability of the political rules to cable television - applying reasonable access to cable systems and lowest unit rates and equal opportunities to cable networks.  As Congressional leaders are proposing to move this legislation quickly (with votes before July 4) so that it can be in place for the coming Congressional elections, broadcasters and cable companies need to carefully consider the proposals so that they can be discussed with their Congressional representatives before the bills are voted on by Congress.

While much of the bill is intended to force disclosure of those sponsoring ads and otherwise trying to influence the political process, the portions of the bill that amend provisions of the Communications Act include the following:

  • An extension of Reasonable Access to require that broadcasters give reasonable access not just to Federal political candidates, but also to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  In recent years where the Democratic and Republican Congressional Campaign Committees have been big buyers of broadcast time.  The extension of reasonable access to these groups could put even greater demands on broadcast advertising time on stations in markets with hot races, as stations could not refuse to provide access to "all classes of time and all dayparts", as required by the reasonable access rules.  This could crowd out other advertisers, and even make it harder for ads for state elections (as state and local candidates have no reasonable access rights) in states where there are hotly contested races.
  • Extends the Reasonable Access requirements to require reasonable access to "reasonable amounts of time purchased at lowest unit rates."  The purpose of this change is not clear, as all political time must be sold to candidates at lowest unit rates in the 60 days before a general election and the 45 days before a primary. 
  • Extends the requirement for Lowest Unit Rates to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  Currently, the lowest unit charges apply only to the candidate's campaign committees, not to political parties.  Under the proposed language, LUC rates would also apply to the parties, and to groups like the Republican and Democratic National Campaign Committees
  • Extends the "no censorship" provisions to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  This change may be a positive for broadcasters.  As we have written before, a broadcast station cannot censor a candidate's ad.  But, as they have no power to reject a candidate's ad based on its contents, they have no liability should that ad contain material that could potentially be defamatory or otherwise subject the station to liability.  This proposed language would extend the no censorship rule to cover ads from Federal political parties, so that stations would not have liability for those ads either.  As many of the hardest hitting attack ads often come from these committees, if this legislation were to pass, stations would not have to worry about evaluating the truth or falsity of the committee's ads, as they would have no liability for the contents of the ads as they would be forbidden by law from rejecting the ads based on their contents.
  • Provides for a lower Lowest Unit Rate in races where there are independent expenditures by any group of more than $50,000.  If a corporation or other group spends $50,000 in any political race, then all stations would be required to charge all candidates in the race the lowest charge made for "the same amount of time in the last 180 days" - not just the lowest charge for the same class of time as is then currently running on the station.  First, this would force stations to look back 6 months to determine their lowest unit rates.  For a primary election in June or July, rates in the doldrums of January or February could set the June political rates.  Moreover, the legislation does not state that it would look at the lowest rate for the same "class" of time over the previous 180 days, but instead it talks only about the same "amount" of time.  It is unclear if this is an intentional attempt to make stations sell prime time spots at overnight rates, but the current language of the bill seems to avoid the traditional distinctions on spots being sold based on their class.
  • Forbids the preemption of advertising by a legally qualified candidate or national committee except for unforeseen circumstances.  This provision may well be intended to force stations to sell candidates advertising at their lowest nonpreemptible rates, and then treat the spots as they would much more expensive non-preemptible fixed position spots
  • Requires the FCC to conduct random audits during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Audits would have to be conducted as follows: 
    • 6 of the Top 50 TV markets
    • 3 of the markets 51-100
    • 3 of the markets rates 101-150
    • 3 markets below 150
    • Audits would be required of the 3 largest networks, 1 independent TV network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.  The language here, too, seems odd, as the requirements for audits are for "networks" of broadcast, cable and radio stations, not for local operators, and for an "independent television network" which would seem to be an inherently contradictory term - if a station is truly an independent, it is not affiliated with a network, so how can the FCC audit an "independent television network"?  It is unclear of whether this provision is requiring audits of the networks themselves, or of affiliates of the networks in the markets in which audits must be conducted. 
  • Requirements that stations keep on their website information about all requests for the purchase of broadcast time by candidates, political parties or other independent political groups. Right now, the rules specifically do not require that political files be kept online.

There is also a provision changing the definition section of the Section 315 of the Communications Act which sets out the lowest unit charge provisions of the Act, along with no censorship and equal opportunities, which currently apply to broadcasters and the operators of cable television systems.  The proposed changes would add to the definition of a broadcast stations the phrase "and a provider of cable or satellite television service", making clear that all such services are included in the lowest unit rate provisions of the rules - which might be read as an attempt to include cable television networks within the scope of the rules.  In fact, as provided above, the law requires an audit of a cable network, implying that they will be subject to the rules if this law is adopted.  The law also adds a reasonable access provision to Section 315, which would seem to extend the concept of reasonable access to cable as well as to broadcast. The clear intent is unstated, but given the definitional language used in the language of the bill, and the fact that this new provision dealing with reasonable access is added to Section 315 which applies to cable (as contrasted to the Section 312 reasonable access provisions which do not), the extension of reasonable access to cable is seemingly the impact of this language.

The bill also extends the "stand by your ad" provisions of the Federal Election law to ads by third party groups, so a spokesman for any third party group buying ad time in connection with a political campaign will be forced to appear on the ad and take "credit" for that ad.  Disclosure of the Top 5 contributors to non-candidate political committees would also be required by this bill.

It is clear that the DISCLOSE Act could fundamentally change the way that broadcasters and cable companies deal with political advertising during election periods.  With the push to decrease rates and increase access to the airwaves, there could well be a a significant reaction by those being regulated.  Given the more expansive reading of First Amendment rights from the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case which spurred this proposed legislation, it would be quite possible that some broadcast or cable group could choose to challenge the mandatory access rights given to political parties under these rules, or the very cheap rates for political ads that could be read into the provisions of this bill.  There will be much to debate on this legislation, and the language of the bill could very well change as it makes its way through the Congressional processes.  But there are many important issues to consider - and broadcasters need to be aware of their possible impact. 

The Impact of the Proposed DISCLOSE Campaign Reform Act on Broadcasters and Cable Operators – Lowest Unit Rates and Reasonable Access for Political Parties, On Line Political File, FCC Audits and More

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Fri 30 Apr 2010 2:33 pm

In reaction to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision invalidating restrictions on corporate spending on advertising and other messages explicitly endorsing or attacking political candidates (about which we wrote here), new legislation, called the DISCLOSE Act,  has just been introduced in both houses of Congress seeking to mitigate the perceived impact of the Court's decision.  While the announced goal of the legislation is aimed at disclosure of the individuals and companies who are trying to impact the political process, the draft legislation, if adopted would have significant impact on broadcasters and cable companies, including potentially extending lowest unit rates and reasonable access to Federal political party's campaign committees (and not just the candidates themselves).  The draft legislation also proposes lower Lowest Unit Rates in political races where there are significant independent expenditures, more disclosure by broadcasters through an on-line political file, and even mandates for audits by the FCC of the rates charged by television stations to political candidates.  The language could also be read as an expansion of the current applicability of the political rules to cable television - applying reasonable access to cable systems and lowest unit rates and equal opportunities to cable networks.  As Congressional leaders are proposing to move this legislation quickly (with votes before July 4) so that it can be in place for the coming Congressional elections, broadcasters and cable companies need to carefully consider the proposals so that they can be discussed with their Congressional representatives before the bills are voted on by Congress.

While much of the bill is intended to force disclosure of those sponsoring ads and otherwise trying to influence the political process, the portions of the bill that amend provisions of the Communications Act include the following:

  • An extension of Reasonable Access to require that broadcasters give reasonable access not just to Federal political candidates, but also to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  In recent years where the Democratic and Republican Congressional Campaign Committees have been big buyers of broadcast time.  The extension of reasonable access to these groups could put even greater demands on broadcast advertising time on stations in markets with hot races, as stations could not refuse to provide access to "all classes of time and all dayparts", as required by the reasonable access rules.  This could crowd out other advertisers, and even make it harder for ads for state elections (as state and local candidates have no reasonable access rights) in states where there are hotly contested races.
  • Extends the Reasonable Access requirements to require reasonable access to "reasonable amounts of time purchased at lowest unit rates."  The purpose of this change is not clear, as all political time must be sold to candidates at lowest unit rates in the 60 days before a general election and the 45 days before a primary. 
  • Extends the requirement for Lowest Unit Rates to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  Currently, the lowest unit charges apply only to the candidate's campaign committees, not to political parties.  Under the proposed language, LUC rates would also apply to the parties, and to groups like the Republican and Democratic National Campaign Committees
  • Extends the "no censorship" provisions to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  This change may be a positive for broadcasters.  As we have written before, a broadcast station cannot censor a candidate's ad.  But, as they have no power to reject a candidate's ad based on its contents, they have no liability should that ad contain material that could potentially be defamatory or otherwise subject the station to liability.  This proposed language would extend the no censorship rule to cover ads from Federal political parties, so that stations would not have liability for those ads either.  As many of the hardest hitting attack ads often come from these committees, if this legislation were to pass, stations would not have to worry about evaluating the truth or falsity of the committee's ads, as they would have no liability for the contents of the ads as they would be forbidden by law from rejecting the ads based on their contents.
  • Provides for a lower Lowest Unit Rate in races where there are independent expenditures by any group of more than $50,000.  If a corporation or other group spends $50,000 in any political race, then all stations would be required to charge all candidates in the race the lowest charge made for "the same amount of time in the last 180 days" - not just the lowest charge for the same class of time as is then currently running on the station.  First, this would force stations to look back 6 months to determine their lowest unit rates.  For a primary election in June or July, rates in the doldrums of January or February could set the June political rates.  Moreover, the legislation does not state that it would look at the lowest rate for the same "class" of time over the previous 180 days, but instead it talks only about the same "amount" of time.  It is unclear if this is an intentional attempt to make stations sell prime time spots at overnight rates, but the current language of the bill seems to avoid the traditional distinctions on spots being sold based on their class.
  • Forbids the preemption of advertising by a legally qualified candidate or national committee except for unforeseen circumstances.  This provision may well be intended to force stations to sell candidates advertising at their lowest nonpreemptible rates, and then treat the spots as they would much more expensive non-preemptible fixed position spots
  • Requires the FCC to conduct random audits during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Audits would have to be conducted as follows: 
    • 6 of the Top 50 TV markets
    • 3 of the markets 51-100
    • 3 of the markets rates 101-150
    • 3 markets below 150
    • Audits would be required of the 3 largest networks, 1 independent TV network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.  The language here, too, seems odd, as the requirements for audits are for "networks" of broadcast, cable and radio stations, not for local operators, and for an "independent television network" which would seem to be an inherently contradictory term - if a station is truly an independent, it is not affiliated with a network, so how can the FCC audit an "independent television network"?  It is unclear of whether this provision is requiring audits of the networks themselves, or of affiliates of the networks in the markets in which audits must be conducted. 
  • Requirements that stations keep on their website information about all requests for the purchase of broadcast time by candidates, political parties or other independent political groups. Right now, the rules specifically do not require that political files be kept online.

There is also a provision changing the definition section of the Section 315 of the Communications Act which sets out the lowest unit charge provisions of the Act, along with no censorship and equal opportunities, which currently apply to broadcasters and the operators of cable television systems.  The proposed changes would add to the definition of a broadcast stations the phrase "and a provider of cable or satellite television service", making clear that all such services are included in the lowest unit rate provisions of the rules - which might be read as an attempt to include cable television networks within the scope of the rules.  In fact, as provided above, the law requires an audit of a cable network, implying that they will be subject to the rules if this law is adopted.  The law also adds a reasonable access provision to Section 315, which would seem to extend the concept of reasonable access to cable as well as to broadcast. The clear intent is unstated, but given the definitional language used in the language of the bill, and the fact that this new provision dealing with reasonable access is added to Section 315 which applies to cable (as contrasted to the Section 312 reasonable access provisions which do not), the extension of reasonable access to cable is seemingly the impact of this language.

The bill also extends the "stand by your ad" provisions of the Federal Election law to ads by third party groups, so a spokesman for any third party group buying ad time in connection with a political campaign will be forced to appear on the ad and take "credit" for that ad.  Disclosure of the Top 5 contributors to non-candidate political committees would also be required by this bill.

It is clear that the DISCLOSE Act could fundamentally change the way that broadcasters and cable companies deal with political advertising during election periods.  With the push to decrease rates and increase access to the airwaves, there could well be a a significant reaction by those being regulated.  Given the more expansive reading of First Amendment rights from the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case which spurred this proposed legislation, it would be quite possible that some broadcast or cable group could choose to challenge the mandatory access rights given to political parties under these rules, or the very cheap rates for political ads that could be read into the provisions of this bill.  There will be much to debate on this legislation, and the language of the bill could very well change as it makes its way through the Congressional processes.  But there are many important issues to consider - and broadcasters need to be aware of their possible impact. 

The Impact of the Proposed DISCLOSE Campaign Reform Act on Broadcasters and Cable Operators – Lowest Unit Rates and Reasonable Access for Political Parties, On Line Political File, FCC Audits and More

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Fri 30 Apr 2010 2:33 pm

In reaction to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision invalidating restrictions on corporate spending on advertising and other messages explicitly endorsing or attacking political candidates (about which we wrote here), new legislation, called the DISCLOSE Act,  has just been introduced in both houses of Congress seeking to mitigate the perceived impact of the Court's decision.  While the announced goal of the legislation is aimed at disclosure of the individuals and companies who are trying to impact the political process, the draft legislation, if adopted would have significant impact on broadcasters and cable companies, including potentially extending lowest unit rates and reasonable access to Federal political party's campaign committees (and not just the candidates themselves).  The draft legislation also proposes lower Lowest Unit Rates in political races where there are significant independent expenditures, more disclosure by broadcasters through an on-line political file, and even mandates for audits by the FCC of the rates charged by television stations to political candidates.  The language could also be read as an expansion of the current applicability of the political rules to cable television - applying reasonable access to cable systems and lowest unit rates and equal opportunities to cable networks.  As Congressional leaders are proposing to move this legislation quickly (with votes before July 4) so that it can be in place for the coming Congressional elections, broadcasters and cable companies need to carefully consider the proposals so that they can be discussed with their Congressional representatives before the bills are voted on by Congress.

While much of the bill is intended to force disclosure of those sponsoring ads and otherwise trying to influence the political process, the portions of the bill that amend provisions of the Communications Act include the following:

  • An extension of Reasonable Access to require that broadcasters give reasonable access not just to Federal political candidates, but also to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  In recent years where the Democratic and Republican Congressional Campaign Committees have been big buyers of broadcast time.  The extension of reasonable access to these groups could put even greater demands on broadcast advertising time on stations in markets with hot races, as stations could not refuse to provide access to "all classes of time and all dayparts", as required by the reasonable access rules.  This could crowd out other advertisers, and even make it harder for ads for state elections (as state and local candidates have no reasonable access rights) in states where there are hotly contested races.
  • Extends the Reasonable Access requirements to require reasonable access to "reasonable amounts of time purchased at lowest unit rates."  The purpose of this change is not clear, as all political time must be sold to candidates at lowest unit rates in the 60 days before a general election and the 45 days before a primary. 
  • Extends the requirement for Lowest Unit Rates to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  Currently, the lowest unit charges apply only to the candidate's campaign committees, not to political parties.  Under the proposed language, LUC rates would also apply to the parties, and to groups like the Republican and Democratic National Campaign Committees
  • Extends the "no censorship" provisions to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  This change may be a positive for broadcasters.  As we have written before, a broadcast station cannot censor a candidate's ad.  But, as they have no power to reject a candidate's ad based on its contents, they have no liability should that ad contain material that could potentially be defamatory or otherwise subject the station to liability.  This proposed language would extend the no censorship rule to cover ads from Federal political parties, so that stations would not have liability for those ads either.  As many of the hardest hitting attack ads often come from these committees, if this legislation were to pass, stations would not have to worry about evaluating the truth or falsity of the committee's ads, as they would have no liability for the contents of the ads as they would be forbidden by law from rejecting the ads based on their contents.
  • Provides for a lower Lowest Unit Rate in races where there are independent expenditures by any group of more than $50,000.  If a corporation or other group spends $50,000 in any political race, then all stations would be required to charge all candidates in the race the lowest charge made for "the same amount of time in the last 180 days" - not just the lowest charge for the same class of time as is then currently running on the station.  First, this would force stations to look back 6 months to determine their lowest unit rates.  For a primary election in June or July, rates in the doldrums of January or February could set the June political rates.  Moreover, the legislation does not state that it would look at the lowest rate for the same "class" of time over the previous 180 days, but instead it talks only about the same "amount" of time.  It is unclear if this is an intentional attempt to make stations sell prime time spots at overnight rates, but the current language of the bill seems to avoid the traditional distinctions on spots being sold based on their class.
  • Forbids the preemption of advertising by a legally qualified candidate or national committee except for unforeseen circumstances.  This provision may well be intended to force stations to sell candidates advertising at their lowest nonpreemptible rates, and then treat the spots as they would much more expensive non-preemptible fixed position spots
  • Requires the FCC to conduct random audits during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Audits would have to be conducted as follows: 
    • 6 of the Top 50 TV markets
    • 3 of the markets 51-100
    • 3 of the markets rates 101-150
    • 3 markets below 150
    • Audits would be required of the 3 largest networks, 1 independent TV network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.  The language here, too, seems odd, as the requirements for audits are for "networks" of broadcast, cable and radio stations, not for local operators, and for an "independent television network" which would seem to be an inherently contradictory term - if a station is truly an independent, it is not affiliated with a network, so how can the FCC audit an "independent television network"?  It is unclear of whether this provision is requiring audits of the networks themselves, or of affiliates of the networks in the markets in which audits must be conducted. 
  • Requirements that stations keep on their website information about all requests for the purchase of broadcast time by candidates, political parties or other independent political groups. Right now, the rules specifically do not require that political files be kept online.

There is also a provision changing the definition section of the Section 315 of the Communications Act which sets out the lowest unit charge provisions of the Act, along with no censorship and equal opportunities, which currently apply to broadcasters and the operators of cable television systems.  The proposed changes would add to the definition of a broadcast stations the phrase "and a provider of cable or satellite television service", making clear that all such services are included in the lowest unit rate provisions of the rules - which might be read as an attempt to include cable television networks within the scope of the rules.  In fact, as provided above, the law requires an audit of a cable network, implying that they will be subject to the rules if this law is adopted.  The law also adds a reasonable access provision to Section 315, which would seem to extend the concept of reasonable access to cable as well as to broadcast. The clear intent is unstated, but given the definitional language used in the language of the bill, and the fact that this new provision dealing with reasonable access is added to Section 315 which applies to cable (as contrasted to the Section 312 reasonable access provisions which do not), the extension of reasonable access to cable is seemingly the impact of this language.

The bill also extends the "stand by your ad" provisions of the Federal Election law to ads by third party groups, so a spokesman for any third party group buying ad time in connection with a political campaign will be forced to appear on the ad and take "credit" for that ad.  Disclosure of the Top 5 contributors to non-candidate political committees would also be required by this bill.

It is clear that the DISCLOSE Act could fundamentally change the way that broadcasters and cable companies deal with political advertising during election periods.  With the push to decrease rates and increase access to the airwaves, there could well be a a significant reaction by those being regulated.  Given the more expansive reading of First Amendment rights from the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case which spurred this proposed legislation, it would be quite possible that some broadcast or cable group could choose to challenge the mandatory access rights given to political parties under these rules, or the very cheap rates for political ads that could be read into the provisions of this bill.  There will be much to debate on this legislation, and the language of the bill could very well change as it makes its way through the Congressional processes.  But there are many important issues to consider - and broadcasters need to be aware of their possible impact. 

The Impact of the Proposed DISCLOSE Campaign Reform Act on Broadcasters and Cable Operators – Lowest Unit Rates and Reasonable Access for Political Parties, On Line Political File, FCC Audits and More

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Fri 30 Apr 2010 2:33 pm

In reaction to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision invalidating restrictions on corporate spending on advertising and other messages explicitly endorsing or attacking political candidates (about which we wrote here), new legislation, called the DISCLOSE Act,  has just been introduced in both houses of Congress seeking to mitigate the perceived impact of the Court's decision.  While the announced goal of the legislation is aimed at disclosure of the individuals and companies who are trying to impact the political process, the draft legislation, if adopted would have significant impact on broadcasters and cable companies, including potentially extending lowest unit rates and reasonable access to Federal political party's campaign committees (and not just the candidates themselves).  The draft legislation also proposes lower Lowest Unit Rates in political races where there are significant independent expenditures, more disclosure by broadcasters through an on-line political file, and even mandates for audits by the FCC of the rates charged by television stations to political candidates.  The language could also be read as an expansion of the current applicability of the political rules to cable television - applying reasonable access to cable systems and lowest unit rates and equal opportunities to cable networks.  As Congressional leaders are proposing to move this legislation quickly (with votes before July 4) so that it can be in place for the coming Congressional elections, broadcasters and cable companies need to carefully consider the proposals so that they can be discussed with their Congressional representatives before the bills are voted on by Congress.

While much of the bill is intended to force disclosure of those sponsoring ads and otherwise trying to influence the political process, the portions of the bill that amend provisions of the Communications Act include the following:

  • An extension of Reasonable Access to require that broadcasters give reasonable access not just to Federal political candidates, but also to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  In recent years where the Democratic and Republican Congressional Campaign Committees have been big buyers of broadcast time.  The extension of reasonable access to these groups could put even greater demands on broadcast advertising time on stations in markets with hot races, as stations could not refuse to provide access to "all classes of time and all dayparts", as required by the reasonable access rules.  This could crowd out other advertisers, and even make it harder for ads for state elections (as state and local candidates have no reasonable access rights) in states where there are hotly contested races.
  • Extends the Reasonable Access requirements to require reasonable access to "reasonable amounts of time purchased at lowest unit rates."  The purpose of this change is not clear, as all political time must be sold to candidates at lowest unit rates in the 60 days before a general election and the 45 days before a primary. 
  • Extends the requirement for Lowest Unit Rates to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  Currently, the lowest unit charges apply only to the candidate's campaign committees, not to political parties.  Under the proposed language, LUC rates would also apply to the parties, and to groups like the Republican and Democratic National Campaign Committees
  • Extends the "no censorship" provisions to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  This change may be a positive for broadcasters.  As we have written before, a broadcast station cannot censor a candidate's ad.  But, as they have no power to reject a candidate's ad based on its contents, they have no liability should that ad contain material that could potentially be defamatory or otherwise subject the station to liability.  This proposed language would extend the no censorship rule to cover ads from Federal political parties, so that stations would not have liability for those ads either.  As many of the hardest hitting attack ads often come from these committees, if this legislation were to pass, stations would not have to worry about evaluating the truth or falsity of the committee's ads, as they would have no liability for the contents of the ads as they would be forbidden by law from rejecting the ads based on their contents.
  • Provides for a lower Lowest Unit Rate in races where there are independent expenditures by any group of more than $50,000.  If a corporation or other group spends $50,000 in any political race, then all stations would be required to charge all candidates in the race the lowest charge made for "the same amount of time in the last 180 days" - not just the lowest charge for the same class of time as is then currently running on the station.  First, this would force stations to look back 6 months to determine their lowest unit rates.  For a primary election in June or July, rates in the doldrums of January or February could set the June political rates.  Moreover, the legislation does not state that it would look at the lowest rate for the same "class" of time over the previous 180 days, but instead it talks only about the same "amount" of time.  It is unclear if this is an intentional attempt to make stations sell prime time spots at overnight rates, but the current language of the bill seems to avoid the traditional distinctions on spots being sold based on their class.
  • Forbids the preemption of advertising by a legally qualified candidate or national committee except for unforeseen circumstances.  This provision may well be intended to force stations to sell candidates advertising at their lowest nonpreemptible rates, and then treat the spots as they would much more expensive non-preemptible fixed position spots
  • Requires the FCC to conduct random audits during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Audits would have to be conducted as follows: 
    • 6 of the Top 50 TV markets
    • 3 of the markets 51-100
    • 3 of the markets rates 101-150
    • 3 markets below 150
    • Audits would be required of the 3 largest networks, 1 independent TV network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.  The language here, too, seems odd, as the requirements for audits are for "networks" of broadcast, cable and radio stations, not for local operators, and for an "independent television network" which would seem to be an inherently contradictory term - if a station is truly an independent, it is not affiliated with a network, so how can the FCC audit an "independent television network"?  It is unclear of whether this provision is requiring audits of the networks themselves, or of affiliates of the networks in the markets in which audits must be conducted. 
  • Requirements that stations keep on their website information about all requests for the purchase of broadcast time by candidates, political parties or other independent political groups. Right now, the rules specifically do not require that political files be kept online.

There is also a provision changing the definition section of the Section 315 of the Communications Act which sets out the lowest unit charge provisions of the Act, along with no censorship and equal opportunities, which currently apply to broadcasters and the operators of cable television systems.  The proposed changes would add to the definition of a broadcast stations the phrase "and a provider of cable or satellite television service", making clear that all such services are included in the lowest unit rate provisions of the rules - which might be read as an attempt to include cable television networks within the scope of the rules.  In fact, as provided above, the law requires an audit of a cable network, implying that they will be subject to the rules if this law is adopted.  The law also adds a reasonable access provision to Section 315, which would seem to extend the concept of reasonable access to cable as well as to broadcast. The clear intent is unstated, but given the definitional language used in the language of the bill, and the fact that this new provision dealing with reasonable access is added to Section 315 which applies to cable (as contrasted to the Section 312 reasonable access provisions which do not), the extension of reasonable access to cable is seemingly the impact of this language.

The bill also extends the "stand by your ad" provisions of the Federal Election law to ads by third party groups, so a spokesman for any third party group buying ad time in connection with a political campaign will be forced to appear on the ad and take "credit" for that ad.  Disclosure of the Top 5 contributors to non-candidate political committees would also be required by this bill.

It is clear that the DISCLOSE Act could fundamentally change the way that broadcasters and cable companies deal with political advertising during election periods.  With the push to decrease rates and increase access to the airwaves, there could well be a a significant reaction by those being regulated.  Given the more expansive reading of First Amendment rights from the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case which spurred this proposed legislation, it would be quite possible that some broadcast or cable group could choose to challenge the mandatory access rights given to political parties under these rules, or the very cheap rates for political ads that could be read into the provisions of this bill.  There will be much to debate on this legislation, and the language of the bill could very well change as it makes its way through the Congressional processes.  But there are many important issues to consider - and broadcasters need to be aware of their possible impact. 

The Impact of the Proposed DISCLOSE Campaign Reform Act on Broadcasters and Cable Operators – Lowest Unit Rates and Reasonable Access for Political Parties, On Line Political File, FCC Audits and More

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Fri 30 Apr 2010 2:33 pm

In reaction to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision invalidating restrictions on corporate spending on advertising and other messages explicitly endorsing or attacking political candidates (about which we wrote here), new legislation, called the DISCLOSE Act,  has just been introduced in both houses of Congress seeking to mitigate the perceived impact of the Court's decision.  While the announced goal of the legislation is aimed at disclosure of the individuals and companies who are trying to impact the political process, the draft legislation, if adopted would have significant impact on broadcasters and cable companies, including potentially extending lowest unit rates and reasonable access to Federal political party's campaign committees (and not just the candidates themselves).  The draft legislation also proposes lower Lowest Unit Rates in political races where there are significant independent expenditures, more disclosure by broadcasters through an on-line political file, and even mandates for audits by the FCC of the rates charged by television stations to political candidates.  The language could also be read as an expansion of the current applicability of the political rules to cable television - applying reasonable access to cable systems and lowest unit rates and equal opportunities to cable networks.  As Congressional leaders are proposing to move this legislation quickly (with votes before July 4) so that it can be in place for the coming Congressional elections, broadcasters and cable companies need to carefully consider the proposals so that they can be discussed with their Congressional representatives before the bills are voted on by Congress.

While much of the bill is intended to force disclosure of those sponsoring ads and otherwise trying to influence the political process, the portions of the bill that amend provisions of the Communications Act include the following:

  • An extension of Reasonable Access to require that broadcasters give reasonable access not just to Federal political candidates, but also to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  In recent years where the Democratic and Republican Congressional Campaign Committees have been big buyers of broadcast time.  The extension of reasonable access to these groups could put even greater demands on broadcast advertising time on stations in markets with hot races, as stations could not refuse to provide access to "all classes of time and all dayparts", as required by the reasonable access rules.  This could crowd out other advertisers, and even make it harder for ads for state elections (as state and local candidates have no reasonable access rights) in states where there are hotly contested races.
  • Extends the Reasonable Access requirements to require reasonable access to "reasonable amounts of time purchased at lowest unit rates."  The purpose of this change is not clear, as all political time must be sold to candidates at lowest unit rates in the 60 days before a general election and the 45 days before a primary. 
  • Extends the requirement for Lowest Unit Rates to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  Currently, the lowest unit charges apply only to the candidate's campaign committees, not to political parties.  Under the proposed language, LUC rates would also apply to the parties, and to groups like the Republican and Democratic National Campaign Committees
  • Extends the "no censorship" provisions to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  This change may be a positive for broadcasters.  As we have written before, a broadcast station cannot censor a candidate's ad.  But, as they have no power to reject a candidate's ad based on its contents, they have no liability should that ad contain material that could potentially be defamatory or otherwise subject the station to liability.  This proposed language would extend the no censorship rule to cover ads from Federal political parties, so that stations would not have liability for those ads either.  As many of the hardest hitting attack ads often come from these committees, if this legislation were to pass, stations would not have to worry about evaluating the truth or falsity of the committee's ads, as they would have no liability for the contents of the ads as they would be forbidden by law from rejecting the ads based on their contents.
  • Provides for a lower Lowest Unit Rate in races where there are independent expenditures by any group of more than $50,000.  If a corporation or other group spends $50,000 in any political race, then all stations would be required to charge all candidates in the race the lowest charge made for "the same amount of time in the last 180 days" - not just the lowest charge for the same class of time as is then currently running on the station.  First, this would force stations to look back 6 months to determine their lowest unit rates.  For a primary election in June or July, rates in the doldrums of January or February could set the June political rates.  Moreover, the legislation does not state that it would look at the lowest rate for the same "class" of time over the previous 180 days, but instead it talks only about the same "amount" of time.  It is unclear if this is an intentional attempt to make stations sell prime time spots at overnight rates, but the current language of the bill seems to avoid the traditional distinctions on spots being sold based on their class.
  • Forbids the preemption of advertising by a legally qualified candidate or national committee except for unforeseen circumstances.  This provision may well be intended to force stations to sell candidates advertising at their lowest nonpreemptible rates, and then treat the spots as they would much more expensive non-preemptible fixed position spots
  • Requires the FCC to conduct random audits during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Audits would have to be conducted as follows: 
    • 6 of the Top 50 TV markets
    • 3 of the markets 51-100
    • 3 of the markets rates 101-150
    • 3 markets below 150
    • Audits would be required of the 3 largest networks, 1 independent TV network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.  The language here, too, seems odd, as the requirements for audits are for "networks" of broadcast, cable and radio stations, not for local operators, and for an "independent television network" which would seem to be an inherently contradictory term - if a station is truly an independent, it is not affiliated with a network, so how can the FCC audit an "independent television network"?  It is unclear of whether this provision is requiring audits of the networks themselves, or of affiliates of the networks in the markets in which audits must be conducted. 
  • Requirements that stations keep on their website information about all requests for the purchase of broadcast time by candidates, political parties or other independent political groups. Right now, the rules specifically do not require that political files be kept online.

There is also a provision changing the definition section of the Section 315 of the Communications Act which sets out the lowest unit charge provisions of the Act, along with no censorship and equal opportunities, which currently apply to broadcasters and the operators of cable television systems.  The proposed changes would add to the definition of a broadcast stations the phrase "and a provider of cable or satellite television service", making clear that all such services are included in the lowest unit rate provisions of the rules - which might be read as an attempt to include cable television networks within the scope of the rules.  In fact, as provided above, the law requires an audit of a cable network, implying that they will be subject to the rules if this law is adopted.  The law also adds a reasonable access provision to Section 315, which would seem to extend the concept of reasonable access to cable as well as to broadcast. The clear intent is unstated, but given the definitional language used in the language of the bill, and the fact that this new provision dealing with reasonable access is added to Section 315 which applies to cable (as contrasted to the Section 312 reasonable access provisions which do not), the extension of reasonable access to cable is seemingly the impact of this language.

The bill also extends the "stand by your ad" provisions of the Federal Election law to ads by third party groups, so a spokesman for any third party group buying ad time in connection with a political campaign will be forced to appear on the ad and take "credit" for that ad.  Disclosure of the Top 5 contributors to non-candidate political committees would also be required by this bill.

It is clear that the DISCLOSE Act could fundamentally change the way that broadcasters and cable companies deal with political advertising during election periods.  With the push to decrease rates and increase access to the airwaves, there could well be a a significant reaction by those being regulated.  Given the more expansive reading of First Amendment rights from the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case which spurred this proposed legislation, it would be quite possible that some broadcast or cable group could choose to challenge the mandatory access rights given to political parties under these rules, or the very cheap rates for political ads that could be read into the provisions of this bill.  There will be much to debate on this legislation, and the language of the bill could very well change as it makes its way through the Congressional processes.  But there are many important issues to consider - and broadcasters need to be aware of their possible impact. 

The Impact of the Proposed DISCLOSE Campaign Reform Act on Broadcasters and Cable Operators – Lowest Unit Rates and Reasonable Access for Political Parties, On Line Political File, FCC Audits and More

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Fri 30 Apr 2010 2:33 pm

In reaction to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision invalidating restrictions on corporate spending on advertising and other messages explicitly endorsing or attacking political candidates (about which we wrote here), new legislation, called the DISCLOSE Act,  has just been introduced in both houses of Congress seeking to mitigate the perceived impact of the Court's decision.  While the announced goal of the legislation is aimed at disclosure of the individuals and companies who are trying to impact the political process, the draft legislation, if adopted would have significant impact on broadcasters and cable companies, including potentially extending lowest unit rates and reasonable access to Federal political party's campaign committees (and not just the candidates themselves).  The draft legislation also proposes lower Lowest Unit Rates in political races where there are significant independent expenditures, more disclosure by broadcasters through an on-line political file, and even mandates for audits by the FCC of the rates charged by television stations to political candidates.  The language could also be read as an expansion of the current applicability of the political rules to cable television - applying reasonable access to cable systems and lowest unit rates and equal opportunities to cable networks.  As Congressional leaders are proposing to move this legislation quickly (with votes before July 4) so that it can be in place for the coming Congressional elections, broadcasters and cable companies need to carefully consider the proposals so that they can be discussed with their Congressional representatives before the bills are voted on by Congress.

While much of the bill is intended to force disclosure of those sponsoring ads and otherwise trying to influence the political process, the portions of the bill that amend provisions of the Communications Act include the following:

  • An extension of Reasonable Access to require that broadcasters give reasonable access not just to Federal political candidates, but also to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  In recent years where the Democratic and Republican Congressional Campaign Committees have been big buyers of broadcast time.  The extension of reasonable access to these groups could put even greater demands on broadcast advertising time on stations in markets with hot races, as stations could not refuse to provide access to "all classes of time and all dayparts", as required by the reasonable access rules.  This could crowd out other advertisers, and even make it harder for ads for state elections (as state and local candidates have no reasonable access rights) in states where there are hotly contested races.
  • Extends the Reasonable Access requirements to require reasonable access to "reasonable amounts of time purchased at lowest unit rates."  The purpose of this change is not clear, as all political time must be sold to candidates at lowest unit rates in the 60 days before a general election and the 45 days before a primary. 
  • Extends the requirement for Lowest Unit Rates to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  Currently, the lowest unit charges apply only to the candidate's campaign committees, not to political parties.  Under the proposed language, LUC rates would also apply to the parties, and to groups like the Republican and Democratic National Campaign Committees
  • Extends the "no censorship" provisions to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  This change may be a positive for broadcasters.  As we have written before, a broadcast station cannot censor a candidate's ad.  But, as they have no power to reject a candidate's ad based on its contents, they have no liability should that ad contain material that could potentially be defamatory or otherwise subject the station to liability.  This proposed language would extend the no censorship rule to cover ads from Federal political parties, so that stations would not have liability for those ads either.  As many of the hardest hitting attack ads often come from these committees, if this legislation were to pass, stations would not have to worry about evaluating the truth or falsity of the committee's ads, as they would have no liability for the contents of the ads as they would be forbidden by law from rejecting the ads based on their contents.
  • Provides for a lower Lowest Unit Rate in races where there are independent expenditures by any group of more than $50,000.  If a corporation or other group spends $50,000 in any political race, then all stations would be required to charge all candidates in the race the lowest charge made for "the same amount of time in the last 180 days" - not just the lowest charge for the same class of time as is then currently running on the station.  First, this would force stations to look back 6 months to determine their lowest unit rates.  For a primary election in June or July, rates in the doldrums of January or February could set the June political rates.  Moreover, the legislation does not state that it would look at the lowest rate for the same "class" of time over the previous 180 days, but instead it talks only about the same "amount" of time.  It is unclear if this is an intentional attempt to make stations sell prime time spots at overnight rates, but the current language of the bill seems to avoid the traditional distinctions on spots being sold based on their class.
  • Forbids the preemption of advertising by a legally qualified candidate or national committee except for unforeseen circumstances.  This provision may well be intended to force stations to sell candidates advertising at their lowest nonpreemptible rates, and then treat the spots as they would much more expensive non-preemptible fixed position spots
  • Requires the FCC to conduct random audits during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Audits would have to be conducted as follows: 
    • 6 of the Top 50 TV markets
    • 3 of the markets 51-100
    • 3 of the markets rates 101-150
    • 3 markets below 150
    • Audits would be required of the 3 largest networks, 1 independent TV network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.  The language here, too, seems odd, as the requirements for audits are for "networks" of broadcast, cable and radio stations, not for local operators, and for an "independent television network" which would seem to be an inherently contradictory term - if a station is truly an independent, it is not affiliated with a network, so how can the FCC audit an "independent television network"?  It is unclear of whether this provision is requiring audits of the networks themselves, or of affiliates of the networks in the markets in which audits must be conducted. 
  • Requirements that stations keep on their website information about all requests for the purchase of broadcast time by candidates, political parties or other independent political groups. Right now, the rules specifically do not require that political files be kept online.

There is also a provision changing the definition section of the Section 315 of the Communications Act which sets out the lowest unit charge provisions of the Act, along with no censorship and equal opportunities, which currently apply to broadcasters and the operators of cable television systems.  The proposed changes would add to the definition of a broadcast stations the phrase "and a provider of cable or satellite television service", making clear that all such services are included in the lowest unit rate provisions of the rules - which might be read as an attempt to include cable television networks within the scope of the rules.  In fact, as provided above, the law requires an audit of a cable network, implying that they will be subject to the rules if this law is adopted.  The law also adds a reasonable access provision to Section 315, which would seem to extend the concept of reasonable access to cable as well as to broadcast. The clear intent is unstated, but given the definitional language used in the language of the bill, and the fact that this new provision dealing with reasonable access is added to Section 315 which applies to cable (as contrasted to the Section 312 reasonable access provisions which do not), the extension of reasonable access to cable is seemingly the impact of this language.

The bill also extends the "stand by your ad" provisions of the Federal Election law to ads by third party groups, so a spokesman for any third party group buying ad time in connection with a political campaign will be forced to appear on the ad and take "credit" for that ad.  Disclosure of the Top 5 contributors to non-candidate political committees would also be required by this bill.

It is clear that the DISCLOSE Act could fundamentally change the way that broadcasters and cable companies deal with political advertising during election periods.  With the push to decrease rates and increase access to the airwaves, there could well be a a significant reaction by those being regulated.  Given the more expansive reading of First Amendment rights from the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case which spurred this proposed legislation, it would be quite possible that some broadcast or cable group could choose to challenge the mandatory access rights given to political parties under these rules, or the very cheap rates for political ads that could be read into the provisions of this bill.  There will be much to debate on this legislation, and the language of the bill could very well change as it makes its way through the Congressional processes.  But there are many important issues to consider - and broadcasters need to be aware of their possible impact. 

The Impact of the Proposed DISCLOSE Campaign Reform Act on Broadcasters and Cable Operators – Lowest Unit Rates and Reasonable Access for Political Parties, On Line Political File, FCC Audits and More

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Fri 30 Apr 2010 2:33 pm

In reaction to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision invalidating restrictions on corporate spending on advertising and other messages explicitly endorsing or attacking political candidates (about which we wrote here), new legislation, called the DISCLOSE Act,  has just been introduced in both houses of Congress seeking to mitigate the perceived impact of the Court's decision.  While the announced goal of the legislation is aimed at disclosure of the individuals and companies who are trying to impact the political process, the draft legislation, if adopted would have significant impact on broadcasters and cable companies, including potentially extending lowest unit rates and reasonable access to Federal political party's campaign committees (and not just the candidates themselves).  The draft legislation also proposes lower Lowest Unit Rates in political races where there are significant independent expenditures, more disclosure by broadcasters through an on-line political file, and even mandates for audits by the FCC of the rates charged by television stations to political candidates.  The language could also be read as an expansion of the current applicability of the political rules to cable television - applying reasonable access to cable systems and lowest unit rates and equal opportunities to cable networks.  As Congressional leaders are proposing to move this legislation quickly (with votes before July 4) so that it can be in place for the coming Congressional elections, broadcasters and cable companies need to carefully consider the proposals so that they can be discussed with their Congressional representatives before the bills are voted on by Congress.

While much of the bill is intended to force disclosure of those sponsoring ads and otherwise trying to influence the political process, the portions of the bill that amend provisions of the Communications Act include the following:

  • An extension of Reasonable Access to require that broadcasters give reasonable access not just to Federal political candidates, but also to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  In recent years where the Democratic and Republican Congressional Campaign Committees have been big buyers of broadcast time.  The extension of reasonable access to these groups could put even greater demands on broadcast advertising time on stations in markets with hot races, as stations could not refuse to provide access to "all classes of time and all dayparts", as required by the reasonable access rules.  This could crowd out other advertisers, and even make it harder for ads for state elections (as state and local candidates have no reasonable access rights) in states where there are hotly contested races.
  • Extends the Reasonable Access requirements to require reasonable access to "reasonable amounts of time purchased at lowest unit rates."  The purpose of this change is not clear, as all political time must be sold to candidates at lowest unit rates in the 60 days before a general election and the 45 days before a primary. 
  • Extends the requirement for Lowest Unit Rates to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  Currently, the lowest unit charges apply only to the candidate's campaign committees, not to political parties.  Under the proposed language, LUC rates would also apply to the parties, and to groups like the Republican and Democratic National Campaign Committees
  • Extends the "no censorship" provisions to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  This change may be a positive for broadcasters.  As we have written before, a broadcast station cannot censor a candidate's ad.  But, as they have no power to reject a candidate's ad based on its contents, they have no liability should that ad contain material that could potentially be defamatory or otherwise subject the station to liability.  This proposed language would extend the no censorship rule to cover ads from Federal political parties, so that stations would not have liability for those ads either.  As many of the hardest hitting attack ads often come from these committees, if this legislation were to pass, stations would not have to worry about evaluating the truth or falsity of the committee's ads, as they would have no liability for the contents of the ads as they would be forbidden by law from rejecting the ads based on their contents.
  • Provides for a lower Lowest Unit Rate in races where there are independent expenditures by any group of more than $50,000.  If a corporation or other group spends $50,000 in any political race, then all stations would be required to charge all candidates in the race the lowest charge made for "the same amount of time in the last 180 days" - not just the lowest charge for the same class of time as is then currently running on the station.  First, this would force stations to look back 6 months to determine their lowest unit rates.  For a primary election in June or July, rates in the doldrums of January or February could set the June political rates.  Moreover, the legislation does not state that it would look at the lowest rate for the same "class" of time over the previous 180 days, but instead it talks only about the same "amount" of time.  It is unclear if this is an intentional attempt to make stations sell prime time spots at overnight rates, but the current language of the bill seems to avoid the traditional distinctions on spots being sold based on their class.
  • Forbids the preemption of advertising by a legally qualified candidate or national committee except for unforeseen circumstances.  This provision may well be intended to force stations to sell candidates advertising at their lowest nonpreemptible rates, and then treat the spots as they would much more expensive non-preemptible fixed position spots
  • Requires the FCC to conduct random audits during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Audits would have to be conducted as follows: 
    • 6 of the Top 50 TV markets
    • 3 of the markets 51-100
    • 3 of the markets rates 101-150
    • 3 markets below 150
    • Audits would be required of the 3 largest networks, 1 independent TV network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.  The language here, too, seems odd, as the requirements for audits are for "networks" of broadcast, cable and radio stations, not for local operators, and for an "independent television network" which would seem to be an inherently contradictory term - if a station is truly an independent, it is not affiliated with a network, so how can the FCC audit an "independent television network"?  It is unclear of whether this provision is requiring audits of the networks themselves, or of affiliates of the networks in the markets in which audits must be conducted. 
  • Requirements that stations keep on their website information about all requests for the purchase of broadcast time by candidates, political parties or other independent political groups. Right now, the rules specifically do not require that political files be kept online.

There is also a provision changing the definition section of the Section 315 of the Communications Act which sets out the lowest unit charge provisions of the Act, along with no censorship and equal opportunities, which currently apply to broadcasters and the operators of cable television systems.  The proposed changes would add to the definition of a broadcast stations the phrase "and a provider of cable or satellite television service", making clear that all such services are included in the lowest unit rate provisions of the rules - which might be read as an attempt to include cable television networks within the scope of the rules.  In fact, as provided above, the law requires an audit of a cable network, implying that they will be subject to the rules if this law is adopted.  The law also adds a reasonable access provision to Section 315, which would seem to extend the concept of reasonable access to cable as well as to broadcast. The clear intent is unstated, but given the definitional language used in the language of the bill, and the fact that this new provision dealing with reasonable access is added to Section 315 which applies to cable (as contrasted to the Section 312 reasonable access provisions which do not), the extension of reasonable access to cable is seemingly the impact of this language.

The bill also extends the "stand by your ad" provisions of the Federal Election law to ads by third party groups, so a spokesman for any third party group buying ad time in connection with a political campaign will be forced to appear on the ad and take "credit" for that ad.  Disclosure of the Top 5 contributors to non-candidate political committees would also be required by this bill.

It is clear that the DISCLOSE Act could fundamentally change the way that broadcasters and cable companies deal with political advertising during election periods.  With the push to decrease rates and increase access to the airwaves, there could well be a a significant reaction by those being regulated.  Given the more expansive reading of First Amendment rights from the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case which spurred this proposed legislation, it would be quite possible that some broadcast or cable group could choose to challenge the mandatory access rights given to political parties under these rules, or the very cheap rates for political ads that could be read into the provisions of this bill.  There will be much to debate on this legislation, and the language of the bill could very well change as it makes its way through the Congressional processes.  But there are many important issues to consider - and broadcasters need to be aware of their possible impact. 

The Impact of the Proposed DISCLOSE Campaign Reform Act on Broadcasters and Cable Operators – Lowest Unit Rates and Reasonable Access for Political Parties, On Line Political File, FCC Audits and More

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Fri 30 Apr 2010 2:33 pm

In reaction to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision invalidating restrictions on corporate spending on advertising and other messages explicitly endorsing or attacking political candidates (about which we wrote here), new legislation, called the DISCLOSE Act,  has just been introduced in both houses of Congress seeking to mitigate the perceived impact of the Court's decision.  While the announced goal of the legislation is aimed at disclosure of the individuals and companies who are trying to impact the political process, the draft legislation, if adopted would have significant impact on broadcasters and cable companies, including potentially extending lowest unit rates and reasonable access to Federal political party's campaign committees (and not just the candidates themselves).  The draft legislation also proposes lower Lowest Unit Rates in political races where there are significant independent expenditures, more disclosure by broadcasters through an on-line political file, and even mandates for audits by the FCC of the rates charged by television stations to political candidates.  The language could also be read as an expansion of the current applicability of the political rules to cable television - applying reasonable access to cable systems and lowest unit rates and equal opportunities to cable networks.  As Congressional leaders are proposing to move this legislation quickly (with votes before July 4) so that it can be in place for the coming Congressional elections, broadcasters and cable companies need to carefully consider the proposals so that they can be discussed with their Congressional representatives before the bills are voted on by Congress.

While much of the bill is intended to force disclosure of those sponsoring ads and otherwise trying to influence the political process, the portions of the bill that amend provisions of the Communications Act include the following:

  • An extension of Reasonable Access to require that broadcasters give reasonable access not just to Federal political candidates, but also to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  In recent years where the Democratic and Republican Congressional Campaign Committees have been big buyers of broadcast time.  The extension of reasonable access to these groups could put even greater demands on broadcast advertising time on stations in markets with hot races, as stations could not refuse to provide access to "all classes of time and all dayparts", as required by the reasonable access rules.  This could crowd out other advertisers, and even make it harder for ads for state elections (as state and local candidates have no reasonable access rights) in states where there are hotly contested races.
  • Extends the Reasonable Access requirements to require reasonable access to "reasonable amounts of time purchased at lowest unit rates."  The purpose of this change is not clear, as all political time must be sold to candidates at lowest unit rates in the 60 days before a general election and the 45 days before a primary. 
  • Extends the requirement for Lowest Unit Rates to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  Currently, the lowest unit charges apply only to the candidate's campaign committees, not to political parties.  Under the proposed language, LUC rates would also apply to the parties, and to groups like the Republican and Democratic National Campaign Committees
  • Extends the "no censorship" provisions to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  This change may be a positive for broadcasters.  As we have written before, a broadcast station cannot censor a candidate's ad.  But, as they have no power to reject a candidate's ad based on its contents, they have no liability should that ad contain material that could potentially be defamatory or otherwise subject the station to liability.  This proposed language would extend the no censorship rule to cover ads from Federal political parties, so that stations would not have liability for those ads either.  As many of the hardest hitting attack ads often come from these committees, if this legislation were to pass, stations would not have to worry about evaluating the truth or falsity of the committee's ads, as they would have no liability for the contents of the ads as they would be forbidden by law from rejecting the ads based on their contents.
  • Provides for a lower Lowest Unit Rate in races where there are independent expenditures by any group of more than $50,000.  If a corporation or other group spends $50,000 in any political race, then all stations would be required to charge all candidates in the race the lowest charge made for "the same amount of time in the last 180 days" - not just the lowest charge for the same class of time as is then currently running on the station.  First, this would force stations to look back 6 months to determine their lowest unit rates.  For a primary election in June or July, rates in the doldrums of January or February could set the June political rates.  Moreover, the legislation does not state that it would look at the lowest rate for the same "class" of time over the previous 180 days, but instead it talks only about the same "amount" of time.  It is unclear if this is an intentional attempt to make stations sell prime time spots at overnight rates, but the current language of the bill seems to avoid the traditional distinctions on spots being sold based on their class.
  • Forbids the preemption of advertising by a legally qualified candidate or national committee except for unforeseen circumstances.  This provision may well be intended to force stations to sell candidates advertising at their lowest nonpreemptible rates, and then treat the spots as they would much more expensive non-preemptible fixed position spots
  • Requires the FCC to conduct random audits during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Audits would have to be conducted as follows: 
    • 6 of the Top 50 TV markets
    • 3 of the markets 51-100
    • 3 of the markets rates 101-150
    • 3 markets below 150
    • Audits would be required of the 3 largest networks, 1 independent TV network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.  The language here, too, seems odd, as the requirements for audits are for "networks" of broadcast, cable and radio stations, not for local operators, and for an "independent television network" which would seem to be an inherently contradictory term - if a station is truly an independent, it is not affiliated with a network, so how can the FCC audit an "independent television network"?  It is unclear of whether this provision is requiring audits of the networks themselves, or of affiliates of the networks in the markets in which audits must be conducted. 
  • Requirements that stations keep on their website information about all requests for the purchase of broadcast time by candidates, political parties or other independent political groups. Right now, the rules specifically do not require that political files be kept online.

There is also a provision changing the definition section of the Section 315 of the Communications Act which sets out the lowest unit charge provisions of the Act, along with no censorship and equal opportunities, which currently apply to broadcasters and the operators of cable television systems.  The proposed changes would add to the definition of a broadcast stations the phrase "and a provider of cable or satellite television service", making clear that all such services are included in the lowest unit rate provisions of the rules - which might be read as an attempt to include cable television networks within the scope of the rules.  In fact, as provided above, the law requires an audit of a cable network, implying that they will be subject to the rules if this law is adopted.  The law also adds a reasonable access provision to Section 315, which would seem to extend the concept of reasonable access to cable as well as to broadcast. The clear intent is unstated, but given the definitional language used in the language of the bill, and the fact that this new provision dealing with reasonable access is added to Section 315 which applies to cable (as contrasted to the Section 312 reasonable access provisions which do not), the extension of reasonable access to cable is seemingly the impact of this language.

The bill also extends the "stand by your ad" provisions of the Federal Election law to ads by third party groups, so a spokesman for any third party group buying ad time in connection with a political campaign will be forced to appear on the ad and take "credit" for that ad.  Disclosure of the Top 5 contributors to non-candidate political committees would also be required by this bill.

It is clear that the DISCLOSE Act could fundamentally change the way that broadcasters and cable companies deal with political advertising during election periods.  With the push to decrease rates and increase access to the airwaves, there could well be a a significant reaction by those being regulated.  Given the more expansive reading of First Amendment rights from the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case which spurred this proposed legislation, it would be quite possible that some broadcast or cable group could choose to challenge the mandatory access rights given to political parties under these rules, or the very cheap rates for political ads that could be read into the provisions of this bill.  There will be much to debate on this legislation, and the language of the bill could very well change as it makes its way through the Congressional processes.  But there are many important issues to consider - and broadcasters need to be aware of their possible impact. 

The Impact of the Proposed DISCLOSE Campaign Reform Act on Broadcasters and Cable Operators – Lowest Unit Rates and Reasonable Access for Political Parties, On Line Political File, FCC Audits and More

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Fri 30 Apr 2010 2:33 pm

In reaction to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision invalidating restrictions on corporate spending on advertising and other messages explicitly endorsing or attacking political candidates (about which we wrote here), new legislation, called the DISCLOSE Act,  has just been introduced in both houses of Congress seeking to mitigate the perceived impact of the Court's decision.  While the announced goal of the legislation is aimed at disclosure of the individuals and companies who are trying to impact the political process, the draft legislation, if adopted would have significant impact on broadcasters and cable companies, including potentially extending lowest unit rates and reasonable access to Federal political party's campaign committees (and not just the candidates themselves).  The draft legislation also proposes lower Lowest Unit Rates in political races where there are significant independent expenditures, more disclosure by broadcasters through an on-line political file, and even mandates for audits by the FCC of the rates charged by television stations to political candidates.  The language could also be read as an expansion of the current applicability of the political rules to cable television - applying reasonable access to cable systems and lowest unit rates and equal opportunities to cable networks.  As Congressional leaders are proposing to move this legislation quickly (with votes before July 4) so that it can be in place for the coming Congressional elections, broadcasters and cable companies need to carefully consider the proposals so that they can be discussed with their Congressional representatives before the bills are voted on by Congress.

While much of the bill is intended to force disclosure of those sponsoring ads and otherwise trying to influence the political process, the portions of the bill that amend provisions of the Communications Act include the following:

  • An extension of Reasonable Access to require that broadcasters give reasonable access not just to Federal political candidates, but also to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  In recent years where the Democratic and Republican Congressional Campaign Committees have been big buyers of broadcast time.  The extension of reasonable access to these groups could put even greater demands on broadcast advertising time on stations in markets with hot races, as stations could not refuse to provide access to "all classes of time and all dayparts", as required by the reasonable access rules.  This could crowd out other advertisers, and even make it harder for ads for state elections (as state and local candidates have no reasonable access rights) in states where there are hotly contested races.
  • Extends the Reasonable Access requirements to require reasonable access to "reasonable amounts of time purchased at lowest unit rates."  The purpose of this change is not clear, as all political time must be sold to candidates at lowest unit rates in the 60 days before a general election and the 45 days before a primary. 
  • Extends the requirement for Lowest Unit Rates to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  Currently, the lowest unit charges apply only to the candidate's campaign committees, not to political parties.  Under the proposed language, LUC rates would also apply to the parties, and to groups like the Republican and Democratic National Campaign Committees
  • Extends the "no censorship" provisions to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  This change may be a positive for broadcasters.  As we have written before, a broadcast station cannot censor a candidate's ad.  But, as they have no power to reject a candidate's ad based on its contents, they have no liability should that ad contain material that could potentially be defamatory or otherwise subject the station to liability.  This proposed language would extend the no censorship rule to cover ads from Federal political parties, so that stations would not have liability for those ads either.  As many of the hardest hitting attack ads often come from these committees, if this legislation were to pass, stations would not have to worry about evaluating the truth or falsity of the committee's ads, as they would have no liability for the contents of the ads as they would be forbidden by law from rejecting the ads based on their contents.
  • Provides for a lower Lowest Unit Rate in races where there are independent expenditures by any group of more than $50,000.  If a corporation or other group spends $50,000 in any political race, then all stations would be required to charge all candidates in the race the lowest charge made for "the same amount of time in the last 180 days" - not just the lowest charge for the same class of time as is then currently running on the station.  First, this would force stations to look back 6 months to determine their lowest unit rates.  For a primary election in June or July, rates in the doldrums of January or February could set the June political rates.  Moreover, the legislation does not state that it would look at the lowest rate for the same "class" of time over the previous 180 days, but instead it talks only about the same "amount" of time.  It is unclear if this is an intentional attempt to make stations sell prime time spots at overnight rates, but the current language of the bill seems to avoid the traditional distinctions on spots being sold based on their class.
  • Forbids the preemption of advertising by a legally qualified candidate or national committee except for unforeseen circumstances.  This provision may well be intended to force stations to sell candidates advertising at their lowest nonpreemptible rates, and then treat the spots as they would much more expensive non-preemptible fixed position spots
  • Requires the FCC to conduct random audits during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Audits would have to be conducted as follows: 
    • 6 of the Top 50 TV markets
    • 3 of the markets 51-100
    • 3 of the markets rates 101-150
    • 3 markets below 150
    • Audits would be required of the 3 largest networks, 1 independent TV network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.  The language here, too, seems odd, as the requirements for audits are for "networks" of broadcast, cable and radio stations, not for local operators, and for an "independent television network" which would seem to be an inherently contradictory term - if a station is truly an independent, it is not affiliated with a network, so how can the FCC audit an "independent television network"?  It is unclear of whether this provision is requiring audits of the networks themselves, or of affiliates of the networks in the markets in which audits must be conducted. 
  • Requirements that stations keep on their website information about all requests for the purchase of broadcast time by candidates, political parties or other independent political groups. Right now, the rules specifically do not require that political files be kept online.

There is also a provision changing the definition section of the Section 315 of the Communications Act which sets out the lowest unit charge provisions of the Act, along with no censorship and equal opportunities, which currently apply to broadcasters and the operators of cable television systems.  The proposed changes would add to the definition of a broadcast stations the phrase "and a provider of cable or satellite television service", making clear that all such services are included in the lowest unit rate provisions of the rules - which might be read as an attempt to include cable television networks within the scope of the rules.  In fact, as provided above, the law requires an audit of a cable network, implying that they will be subject to the rules if this law is adopted.  The law also adds a reasonable access provision to Section 315, which would seem to extend the concept of reasonable access to cable as well as to broadcast. The clear intent is unstated, but given the definitional language used in the language of the bill, and the fact that this new provision dealing with reasonable access is added to Section 315 which applies to cable (as contrasted to the Section 312 reasonable access provisions which do not), the extension of reasonable access to cable is seemingly the impact of this language.

The bill also extends the "stand by your ad" provisions of the Federal Election law to ads by third party groups, so a spokesman for any third party group buying ad time in connection with a political campaign will be forced to appear on the ad and take "credit" for that ad.  Disclosure of the Top 5 contributors to non-candidate political committees would also be required by this bill.

It is clear that the DISCLOSE Act could fundamentally change the way that broadcasters and cable companies deal with political advertising during election periods.  With the push to decrease rates and increase access to the airwaves, there could well be a a significant reaction by those being regulated.  Given the more expansive reading of First Amendment rights from the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case which spurred this proposed legislation, it would be quite possible that some broadcast or cable group could choose to challenge the mandatory access rights given to political parties under these rules, or the very cheap rates for political ads that could be read into the provisions of this bill.  There will be much to debate on this legislation, and the language of the bill could very well change as it makes its way through the Congressional processes.  But there are many important issues to consider - and broadcasters need to be aware of their possible impact. 

The Impact of the Proposed DISCLOSE Campaign Reform Act on Broadcasters and Cable Operators – Lowest Unit Rates and Reasonable Access for Political Parties, On Line Political File, FCC Audits and More

Delivered... David Oxenford | Scene | Fri 30 Apr 2010 2:33 pm

In reaction to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision invalidating restrictions on corporate spending on advertising and other messages explicitly endorsing or attacking political candidates (about which we wrote here), new legislation, called the DISCLOSE Act,  has just been introduced in both houses of Congress seeking to mitigate the perceived impact of the Court's decision.  While the announced goal of the legislation is aimed at disclosure of the individuals and companies who are trying to impact the political process, the draft legislation, if adopted would have significant impact on broadcasters and cable companies, including potentially extending lowest unit rates and reasonable access to Federal political party's campaign committees (and not just the candidates themselves).  The draft legislation also proposes lower Lowest Unit Rates in political races where there are significant independent expenditures, more disclosure by broadcasters through an on-line political file, and even mandates for audits by the FCC of the rates charged by television stations to political candidates.  The language could also be read as an expansion of the current applicability of the political rules to cable television - applying reasonable access to cable systems and lowest unit rates and equal opportunities to cable networks.  As Congressional leaders are proposing to move this legislation quickly (with votes before July 4) so that it can be in place for the coming Congressional elections, broadcasters and cable companies need to carefully consider the proposals so that they can be discussed with their Congressional representatives before the bills are voted on by Congress.

While much of the bill is intended to force disclosure of those sponsoring ads and otherwise trying to influence the political process, the portions of the bill that amend provisions of the Communications Act include the following:

  • An extension of Reasonable Access to require that broadcasters give reasonable access not just to Federal political candidates, but also to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  In recent years where the Democratic and Republican Congressional Campaign Committees have been big buyers of broadcast time.  The extension of reasonable access to these groups could put even greater demands on broadcast advertising time on stations in markets with hot races, as stations could not refuse to provide access to "all classes of time and all dayparts", as required by the reasonable access rules.  This could crowd out other advertisers, and even make it harder for ads for state elections (as state and local candidates have no reasonable access rights) in states where there are hotly contested races.
  • Extends the Reasonable Access requirements to require reasonable access to "reasonable amounts of time purchased at lowest unit rates."  The purpose of this change is not clear, as all political time must be sold to candidates at lowest unit rates in the 60 days before a general election and the 45 days before a primary. 
  • Extends the requirement for Lowest Unit Rates to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  Currently, the lowest unit charges apply only to the candidate's campaign committees, not to political parties.  Under the proposed language, LUC rates would also apply to the parties, and to groups like the Republican and Democratic National Campaign Committees
  • Extends the "no censorship" provisions to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  This change may be a positive for broadcasters.  As we have written before, a broadcast station cannot censor a candidate's ad.  But, as they have no power to reject a candidate's ad based on its contents, they have no liability should that ad contain material that could potentially be defamatory or otherwise subject the station to liability.  This proposed language would extend the no censorship rule to cover ads from Federal political parties, so that stations would not have liability for those ads either.  As many of the hardest hitting attack ads often come from these committees, if this legislation were to pass, stations would not have to worry about evaluating the truth or falsity of the committee's ads, as they would have no liability for the contents of the ads as they would be forbidden by law from rejecting the ads based on their contents.
  • Provides for a lower Lowest Unit Rate in races where there are independent expenditures by any group of more than $50,000.  If a corporation or other group spends $50,000 in any political race, then all stations would be required to charge all candidates in the race the lowest charge made for "the same amount of time in the last 180 days" - not just the lowest charge for the same class of time as is then currently running on the station.  First, this would force stations to look back 6 months to determine their lowest unit rates.  For a primary election in June or July, rates in the doldrums of January or February could set the June political rates.  Moreover, the legislation does not state that it would look at the lowest rate for the same "class" of time over the previous 180 days, but instead it talks only about the same "amount" of time.  It is unclear if this is an intentional attempt to make stations sell prime time spots at overnight rates, but the current language of the bill seems to avoid the traditional distinctions on spots being sold based on their class.
  • Forbids the preemption of advertising by a legally qualified candidate or national committee except for unforeseen circumstances.  This provision may well be intended to force stations to sell candidates advertising at their lowest nonpreemptible rates, and then treat the spots as they would much more expensive non-preemptible fixed position spots
  • Requires the FCC to conduct random audits during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Audits would have to be conducted as follows: 
    • 6 of the Top 50 TV markets
    • 3 of the markets 51-100
    • 3 of the markets rates 101-150
    • 3 markets below 150
    • Audits would be required of the 3 largest networks, 1 independent TV network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.  The language here, too, seems odd, as the requirements for audits are for "networks" of broadcast, cable and radio stations, not for local operators, and for an "independent television network" which would seem to be an inherently contradictory term - if a station is truly an independent, it is not affiliated with a network, so how can the FCC audit an "independent television network"?  It is unclear of whether this provision is requiring audits of the networks themselves, or of affiliates of the networks in the markets in which audits must be conducted. 
  • Requirements that stations keep on their website information about all requests for the purchase of broadcast time by candidates, political parties or other independent political groups. Right now, the rules specifically do not require that political files be kept online.

There is also a provision changing the definition section of the Section 315 of the Communications Act which sets out the lowest unit charge provisions of the Act, along with no censorship and equal opportunities, which currently apply to broadcasters and the operators of cable television systems.  The proposed changes would add to the definition of a broadcast stations the phrase "and a provider of cable or satellite television service", making clear that all such services are included in the lowest unit rate provisions of the rules - which might be read as an attempt to include cable television networks within the scope of the rules.  In fact, as provided above, the law requires an audit of a cable network, implying that they will be subject to the rules if this law is adopted.  The law also adds a reasonable access provision to Section 315, which would seem to extend the concept of reasonable access to cable as well as to broadcast. The clear intent is unstated, but given the definitional language used in the language of the bill, and the fact that this new provision dealing with reasonable access is added to Section 315 which applies to cable (as contrasted to the Section 312 reasonable access provisions which do not), the extension of reasonable access to cable is seemingly the impact of this language.

The bill also extends the "stand by your ad" provisions of the Federal Election law to ads by third party groups, so a spokesman for any third party group buying ad time in connection with a political campaign will be forced to appear on the ad and take "credit" for that ad.  Disclosure of the Top 5 contributors to non-candidate political committees would also be required by this bill.

It is clear that the DISCLOSE Act could fundamentally change the way that broadcasters and cable companies deal with political advertising during election periods.  With the push to decrease rates and increase access to the airwaves, there could well be a a significant reaction by those being regulated.  Given the more expansive reading of First Amendment rights from the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case which spurred this proposed legislation, it would be quite possible that some broadcast or cable group could choose to challenge the mandatory access rights given to political parties under these rules, or the very cheap rates for political ads that could be read into the provisions of this bill.  There will be much to debate on this legislation, and the language of the bill could very well change as it makes its way through the Congressional processes.  But there are many important issues to consider - and broadcasters need to be aware of their possible impact. 

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