Quick Thoughts on a Few Political Broadcasting Legal Issues to Survive the Primary Season
One presidential caucus down, 49 (primaries and caucuses, plus a few more in the territories) to go in the next four months – with primaries for Congressional, state and local offices stretching out through August. This presidential primary race has already seen unprecedented amounts of advertising on local stations, including through network advertising buys. Based on campaign announcements made in recent days, the advertising is likely to only increase as we move to the Super Tuesday states. As the Democratic party nomination race heats up, broadcasters are likely to continue to see a flood of political buys, as candidates, PACs and other groups try to get the last word before the voters go to the polls. Here are four issues that broadcasters should be considering in this active, condensed broadcast season:
- Practice Inventory Management. In the last days before an election, there will be many demands on the commercial inventory of many stations, and stations will need to be careful in managing that inventory. Remember, all candidates have the right to buy equal time to the time aired by opposing candidates in the prior 7 days. While candidates cannot sit on their equal opportunity rights until the last minute, equal opportunity buys can place real demands on your commercial inventory, especially if one candidate tries to reserve lots of time in the days immediately preceding a vote. Plus, you will be getting demands from candidates for new time, and requests from PACs and other political advertisers. Thus, be sure that you have practiced wise inventory management so that there is room for all of the spots that you are obligated to run. Be particularly careful about selling a large schedule to one candidate now, reserving big blocks of time in the final days before the primary date, as opposing candidates will need to be able to get their equal opportunities before the primary – even if you have to bump commercial advertisers – and potentially eat into program time.
- Weekend Access. The FCC has said that if a station has, in the year prior to the election, made its employees available to a commercial advertiser for new orders or changes in copy on the weekend prior to an election, they need to make employees available for those activities to political candidates. Even if the station completely shuts down on the weekend, and no salesman ever signs a deal with an advertiser during a Saturday golf outing and no weekend employee ever agrees to change the copy on a big advertiser’s spots, the station may still need to make employees available during the last weekend before the election to allow candidates to exercise the equal opportunity rights discussed above. Start planning now as to the staffing you may need to handle last-minute political requests that weekend before the primary.
- Be Prepared for Take-Down Demands. In the last days before any election, the ads can get more pointed, and some may trigger take-down notices from candidates who are being attacked. Remember, if the attack ad is run by a candidate’s authorized campaign committee, you can’t censor the ad based on its content. That means you are legally forbidden to pull the ad even if it lies about the opponent. But ads bought by PACs and other non-candidate groups can be refused based on their content. So you need to carefully evaluate the claims made by the party demanding that the spot be pulled, because if the claims made in the spot are in fact false and defamatory, the station could have liability for continuing to run the non-candidate attack ads after receiving notice demanding that they be taken down. We wrote more about this subject here and here.
- Keep Your Public File Up to Date. While you may be incredibly busy just getting political ads on the air, don’t forget your public file obligations. The required information about advertising buys by candidates and issue advertisers (including, for candidate and federal issue ads, all the information about the schedule bought, the price paid, the class of time for the spots purchased) need to get into the political file “immediately” – i.e., on a same-day or next business day basis – so that other candidates and the public can see what has been bought. With the recent FCC rulings requiring stations to disclose all the federal candidates, all the federal offices, and all the national issues that are included in any federal issue ad (see our posts here and here).), you need to have staff ready to fulfill your obligations.
Only nine more months and political season will be over, when your station can go back to simply dealing with its normal commercial advertisers. Until then, you need to deal with all of these issues. More on political advertising can be found in our Guide to Political Broadcasting, here, and in the slides that I recently used in a webinar on political broadcasting issues that I did last week for broadcasters in 4 states (available here). Remember, none of this guidance is definitive, as facts are really important in assessing any legal issue – especially in the political broadcasting context. But these guides can help to identify the issues that you should be considering. For now, be prepared for the onslaught of political advertising issues, and have your communications lawyer’s phone number on speed dial!