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Broadcasters not allowed to refuse political ads for ‘nonstandard’ length

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  1. Content Restrictions

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Broadcasting         Oct 4, 1999    

Broadcasters not allowed to refuse political ads for ‘nonstandard’ length

  • The Federal Communications Commission held that broadcasters no longer can reject political advertisements for being of “nonstandard” length

In late August, the Federal Communications Commission found that a broadcast station should not be allowed to bar political advertisements of “nonstandard” length, such as five minutes, even if the station does not typically sell or program nonstandard time.

The August opinion modified a 1994 FCC ruling that allowed broadcasters to treat political and commercial advertisers the same. The FCC noted that decisions concerning a federal candidates’ access to broadcast time must balance the needs of candidates against the needs of broadcasters and expressed a general aversion to “across the board” policies.

The FCC determined that a ban on nonstandard length political advertisements did not adequately address federal candidates’ needs. In reaching this conclusion, the FCC relied on a U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that broadcasters must accommodate federal candidates to the extent reasonably possible, giving “weight to such factors as the amount of time previously sold to the candidate, the disruptive impact on regular programming, and the likelihood of requests for time” by rival candidates.

The FCC noted that five-minute advertisements are useful because a short advertisement might not adequately convey a candidate’s message, yet a candidate might be unable to afford a 30-minute advertisement. Nonetheless, the commission emphasized that broadcasters would not be required to provide nonstandard time slots for political advertisers when there are other legitimate reasons for denying the time, such as programming conflicts.

One dissenting commissioner argued that the reasoning of the 1994 ruling should not have been rejected, and that “reasonable access” is best interpreted to mean that broadcast stations cannot discriminate between commercial and political advertisers. Commissioner Harold W. Furchtgott-Roth argued that the majority wrongly interpreted previous case law as prohibiting across the board policies.

Under a 1972 federal law, broadcasters can lose their licenses if the FCC finds repeated denials of “reasonable access” to commercial air time for qualified federal candidates.

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