It’s election season, and for the 60 days before any general election, broadcast stations are required to charge broadcasters the “lowest unit rate” for comparable advertising time that runs on their stations. That means that, for each class of advertising time on any particular station, the candidate can only be charged the lowest rate at which any spots was sold to a commercial advertiser for that class of time during the particular period in which the candidate’s spots will run. That 60 day period begins tomorrow, so broadcasters should be ready to provide the candidates with these discounted rates for the next 60 days.
As we have written before, e.g. here and here, these rates apply to both Federal, state and local candidates. While state and local candidates have no right of access to broadcast stations (meaning that stations do not need to sell to these candidates, and that stations can restrict their purchases of advertising time to particular dayparts), once the decision to sell time to a state or local candidate is made, then pretty much all of the other political rules, including those dealing with the Lowest Unit Charges for advertising time, must be observed.
It is also important to remember that only legally qualified candidates have the right to lowest unit rates. PACs and other issue advertisers do not get access to these rates, even if they are buying advertising time to address some issue or candidate who will be appearing on the November 8th ballot.
For candidates, the rates provide a real benefit, as they get the ability to buy advertising spots at significant discounts. For instance, they get the benefit of all volume discounts even without buying in volume. The broadcaster is also supposed to explain to the candidate all of the terms and conditions that could affect the candidate’s buying decisions. Candidates also don’t have to contend with buying spots of different classes in packages, but instead stations must break down the value of different classes of spots that are included in any package, and consider those values in assessing the lowest unit rates for each class of time – and the candidate need only buy those classes of time that he or she wants to buy. For more about how to treat the rates in package plans, see our post here.
In setting the lowest unit rates on a station, it must be remembered that virtually no station will have just one lowest unit rate. Almost every station will have several – if not dozens of lowest unit rates – one lowest unit rate for each class of time. Even on the smallest radio station, there are probably several different classes of spots. For instance, there will be different rates for spots that run in morning drive and spots that run in the middle of the night. Each of these time periods with differing rates is a class of time that has its own lowest unit rate. On television stations, there are often classes based not only on daypart, but on the individual program. Similarly, if a station sells different rotations, each rotation on the station is its own class, with its own lowest unit rates (e.g. a 6 AM to Noon rotation is a different class than a 6 AM to 6 PM rotation, and both are a different class from a 24 hour rotator – and each can have its own lowest unit rate). Even in the same time period, there can be preemptible and non-preemptible time, each forming a different class with its own lowest unit rate. Any class of spots that run in a unique time period, with a unique rotation or having different rights attached to it (e.g. different levels of preemptibility, different make-good rights, etc.), will have a different lowest unit rate.
There are a myriad of other issues involving lowest unit charges that come up each election season. We have written about some of those issues in previous articles, for instance those that can be found here and here. Many of these issues are also covered in our Political Broadcasting Guide, here. With the rates kicking in tomorrow, don’t forget your political broadcasting obligations!