In odd years like 2013, most broadcasting stations don’t think about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules. But they should – both for special elections to fill open seats in Congress, and for state and local political offices. This week, the news has been full of stories about next week’s special election for Congress in South Carolina, pitting former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford against Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of TV host Stephen Colbert. Obviously, for a Federal election like that for the Congressional seat they are competing to fill, broadcast stations serving the district they are seeking to serve need to offer candidates the full panoply of candidate rights – including reasonable access, lowest unit rates, and equal opportunities. But in other parts of the country, as well, there are all sorts of political races taking place in this off year and, as we have written before, most of the political rules apply to these state and local electoral races as well as to the few Federal elections that are taking place to fill open Congressional seats.
Candidates for state and local elections are entitled to virtually all of the political broadcasting rights of Federal candidates – with one exception, the right of reasonable access which is reserved solely for Federal candidates. That means that only Federal candidates have the right to demand access to all classes and dayparts of advertising time that a broadcast station has to sell. As we wrote in our summary of reasonable access, here, that does not mean that candidates can demand as much time as they want, only that stations must sell them a reasonable amount of advertising during the various classes of advertising time sold on the station. For state and local candidates, on the other hand, stations don’t need to sell the candidates any advertising time at all. But, if they do, the other political rules apply.
So that means that if a broadcast station decides to sell advertising time to one candidate in a state or local political race, they must sell it to all candidates for the same race – and be prepared to make available equal amounts of time in equivalent time periods. And, if the time is sold during the 45 days before a primary, or the 60 days before the general election, the time must be sold to the candidate at lowest unit rates. See our summaries of the rules relating to equal time here, and to lowest unit charges here. Similarly, if a station air personality decides to run for state and local office (anything from the school board or local planning commission to governor or state legislature), the station needs to consider whether to take that personality off the air, or risk having to provide equal time to all competing applicants – for free, in amounts equivalent to the amount of time that the employee-candidate appeared on the air, even if the employee never mentions his or her candidacy at all. See our article about this choice here.
Two weeks ago, I spoke on FCC legal issues to the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters at their annual convention, and was asked a question about this issue and the one type of public office to which the rules do not apply – election to offices in Native American tribes. The Commission has stated that these elections are exempt from the FCC’s political advertising rules, but for all other state and local elections, the rules must be applied. So don’t forget about the political advertising rules – even though this is an odd numbered year!