What is a Broadcaster to Do When Approached by an Ad Agency Buying Time for an Undisclosed Political Candidate?

by Davis Wright Tremaine LLP
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Does a broadcast station need to book a political ad buy for an agency purporting to be representing a candidate, but refusing to reveal who that candidate is? We’ve recently received this question from a number of broadcast stations in a number of states, as agencies seemingly are jockeying to tie up valuable commercial time in advance of what is likely to be a hotly contested election in November. This seems to be happening particularly with stations that have coverage areas that include parts of certain “swing states” in the Presidential election, or in states with crucial Congressional or Senatorial elections. It seems to us that, unless and until you know that there is a real candidate, there is no obligation for a station to book time for a hypothetical candidate or candidate to be named later.

Booking time for an unknown candidate raises numerous issues for a station. How can a station account for the sale of that time in its political file? If it doesn’t know who the candidate is, it can’t place the required information (which includes the candidate’s name) into the political file. Booking time for a political candidate gives rise to equal opportunities obligations, even outside the 45 and 60 days political windows. How can you determine to whom you owe equal time when the station itself doesn’t even know who the candidate is? And, if the agency even refuses to reveal if it is a Federal or state campaign for which it plans to buy time, making time available to an agency on behalf of an unknown candidate that turns out to be a state candidate may cause the station, through the application of equal opportunities, to have to sell time for a race to which it did not intend to provide access, or to open up dayparts to that state race when it did not intend to offer those dayparts to state candidates. In fact, without knowing the candidate, how can the station assess whether the candidate is legally qualified, or that the time is being purchased by an authorized candidate committee? 

A more difficult question involves giving out rates to agencies that don’t reveal the name of the candidate on whose behalf they are acting. Many stations may be willing to send out their political rate card and disclosure statement to an agency, even if they don’t know who the candidate is, in order to curry favor with the agency when the time actually comes for that agency to buy spots. Other stations may be more reluctant to do so as they don’t want to be sending detailed information about their least expensive rates to just anyone.  Of course, individual lowest unit rates may be available in the station’s public file (and soon, for TV stations, online). But that will reveal only specific rates for specific buys, not all rates for all of the station’s principal classes and dayparts as will be revealed in a full disclosure statement. The Commission has never declared the political rate card or a written political disclosure statement to be public documents that have to be provided to anyone who asks. In fact, the Commission has never even required that they be in writing – though most stations follow good practice and do put them in writing to ensure that they make the same disclosure to all candidates who ask, as required by the Commission.

Neither of these is an easy question, and these thoughts are just for stations to ponder in making decisions on these types of early political season calls. Stations should always check with their own counsel on questions like this – especially if faced with an insistent buyer who refuses to identify the candidate for whom they are buying.

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