EQUAL TIME RULE

U.S. Broadcasting Regulatory Rule

It is the closest thing in broadcast content regulation to the "golden rule." The equal time, or more accurately, the equal opportunity provision of the Communications Act requires radio and television stations and cable systems which originate their own programming to treat legally qualified political candidates equally when it comes to selling or giving away air time. Simply put, a station which sells or gives one minute to Candidate A must sell or give the same amount of time with the same audience potential to all other candidates for the particular office. However, a candidate who can not afford time does not receive free time unless his or her opponent is also given free time. Thus, even with the equal time law, a well funded campaign has a significant advantage in terms of broadcast exposure for the candidate.

The equal opportunity requirement dates back to the first major broadcasting law in the United States, the Radio Act of 1927. Legislators were concerned that without mandated equal opportunity for candidates, some broadcasters might try to manipulate elections. As one congressman put it, "American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations." When the Radio Act was superseded by the Communications Act of 1934, the equal time provision became Section 315 of the new statute.

A major amendment to Section 315 came in 1959 following a controversial Federal Communications Commission (FCC) interpretation of the equal time provision. Lar Daly, who had run for a variety of public offices, sometimes campaigning dressed as Uncle Sam, was running for mayor of Chicago. Daly demanded free air time from Chicago television stations in response to the stations' news coverage of incumbent mayor Richard Daley. Although the airtime given to Mayor Daley was not directly related to his re-election campaign, the FCC ruled that his appearance triggered the equal opportunity provision of Section 315. Broadcasters interpreted the FCC's decision as now requiring equal time for a candidate anytime another candidate appeared on the air, even if the appearance was not linked to the election campaign.

Congress reacted quickly by creating four exemptions to the equal opportunity law. Stations who gave time to candidates on regularly scheduled newscasts, news interviews shows, documentaries (assuming the candidate wasn't the primary focus of the documentary), or on-the-spot news events would not have to offer equal time to other candidates for that office. In creating these exemptions, Congress stressed that the public interest would be served by allowing stations the freedom to cover the activities of candidates without worrying that any story about a candidate, no matter how tangentially related to his or her candidacy, would require equal time. The exemptions to Section 315 have also served the interests of incumbent candidates, since by virtue of their incumbency they often generate more news coverage then their challengers.

Since 1959, the FCC has provided a number of interpretations to Section 315's exemptions. Presidential press conferences have been labeled on-the-spot news, even if the president uses his remarks to bolster his campaign. Since the 1970s, debates have also been considered on-the-spot news events and therefore exempt from the equal time law. This has enabled stations or other parties arranging the debates to choose which candidates to include in a debate. Before this ruling by the FCC, Congress voted to suspend Section 315 during the 1960 presidential campaign to allow Richard Nixon and John Kennedy to engage in a series of debates without the participation of third party candidates. The FCC has also labeled shows such as The Phil Donahue Show and Good Morning America news interview programs. However, appearances by candidates in shows which do not fit under the four exempt formats will trigger the equal opportunities provision, even if the appearance is irrelevant to the campaign. Therefore, during Ronald Reagan's political campaigns, if a station aired one of his films, it would have been required to offer equal time to Mr. Reagan's opponents.

 

Section 315 also prohibits a station from censoring what a candidate says when he or she appears on the air (unless it is in one of the exempt formats). Thus, a few years ago when a self-avowed segregationist was running for the governorship of Georgia, the FCC rejected citizen complaints over the candidate's use in his ads of derogatory language towards African-Americans. More recently, the FCC has also rejected attempts to censor candidate ads depicting aborted fetuses. However, the Commission has permitted stations to channel such ads to times of day when children are less likely to be in the audience.

The equal opportunity law does not demand that a station afford a state or local candidate any air time. However, under the public interest standard of the Communications Act, the FCC has said that stations should make time available for candidates for major state and local offices. With regard to federal candidates, broadcast stations have much less discretion. A 1971 amendment to the Communications Act requires stations make a reasonable amount of time available to federal candidates. Once time is made available under this provision, the equal time requirements of Section 315 apply.

The 1971 amendments also addressed the rates which stations can charge candidates for air time. Before 1971, Congress only required that the rates charged candidates be comparable to those offered to commercial advertisers. Now, Section 315 commands that as the election approaches, stations must offer candidates the rate it offers its most favored advertiser. Thus, if a station gives a discount to a commercial sponsor because it buys a great deal of air time, the station must offer the same discount to any candidate regardless of how much time he or she purchases.

-Howard Klieman

FURTHER READING

Donahue, Hugh Carter. The Battle to Control Broadcast News: Who Owns the First Amendment? Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1989.

Rowan, Ford. Broadcast Fairness: Doctrine, Practice, Prospects: A Reappraisal of the Fairness Doctrine and Equal Time Rule. New York: Longman, 1984.

 

See also Deregulation; Federal Communications Commission; Political Processes and Television