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The Museum of Broadcast History calls the "equal time" rule "the closest thing in broadcast content regulation to the 'golden rule'." This provision of the 1934 Communications Act (section 315) "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."
If any licensee shall permit any person who is a legally qualified candidate for any political office to use a broadcasting station, he shall afford equal opportunities to all other such candidates for that office in the use of such broadcasting station.
"Legally qualified" means, in part, that a person be a declared candidate. Timing of the announcement that someone is running for office is important because it triggers the equal time rule.
For example, in December 1967, President Lyndon Johnson (D-TX) conducted an hour-long interview with all three networks. However, when Democrat Eugene McCarthy demanded equal time, the networks rejected his appeal because Johnson had not declared he would run for reelection.
In 1959, Congress amended the Communications Act after the FCC ruled that Chicago broadcasters had to give "equal time" to mayoral candidate Lar Daly; the incumbent mayor was then Richard Daley. In response, Congress created four exemptions to the equal time rule:
- regularly scheduled newscasts
- news interviews shows
- documentaries (unless the documentary is about a candidate)
- on-the-spot news events
How has the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) interpreted these exemptions?
First, Presidential news conferences are considered "on-the-spot news" even when the President is touting his reelection. Presidential debates are also considered on-the-spot news. Thus, candidates not included in the debates do not have the right of "equal time."
The precedent was set in 1960 when Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy launched the first series of television debates; Congress suspended Section 315 so that third party candidates could be barred from participating. In 1984, the DC District Court ruled that "radio and television stations may sponsor political debates without giving equal time to candidates they don't invite." The case was brought by the League of Women Voters, which criticized the decision: "It expands the all-too-powerful role of the broadcasters in elections, which is both dangerous and unwise."
Second, what's a news interview program or a regularly scheduled newscast? According to a 2000 election guide, the FCC "has expanded its category of broadcast programs exempted from political access requirements to include entertainment shows that provide news or current event coverage as regularly scheduled segments of the program." And the FCC concurs, providing examples that include The Phil Donahue Show, Good Morning America and, believe it or not, Howard Stern, Jerry Springer, and Politically Incorrect.
Third, broadcasters faced a quirk in when Ronald Reagan was running for president. Had they shown movies starring Reagan, they would have "been required to offer equal time to Mr. Reagan's opponents." This admonition was repeated when Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor of California. Had Fred Thompson achieved the Republican Presidential nomination, re-runs of Law & Order would have been on hiatus. Note: The "news interview" exemption above meant that Stern could interview Schwarzenegger and not have to interview any of the other 134 candidates for governor.
A television or radio station cannot censor a campaign ad. But the broadcaster is not required to give free air time to a candidate unless it has given free air time to a different candidate. Since 1971, television and radio stations have been required to make a "reasonable" amount of time available to candidates for federal office. And they must offer those ads at the rate offered the "most favored" advertiser.
This rule is the result of a challenge from then-President Jimmy Carter (D-GA in 1980. His campaign request to buy ads was rejected by the networks for being "too early." Both the FCC and the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Carter. This rule is now known as the "reasonable access" rule.
The Equal Time rule should not be confused with the Fairness Doctrine.