Last month, the House of Representatives passed the DISCLOSE Act (“Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections Act”), H.R. 5175. The bill responds to the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission which held that corporations (and presumably unions and other associations) have a constitutional right to make independent expenditures in election campaigns. The bill would, if it becomes law, impose significant new disclosure requirements related to political expenditures, prohibit government contractors from making campaign expenditures, and ban such expenditures by U.S. corporations owned 20% or more by foreign nationals or which have certain other foreign ties.
The Senate’s companion DISCLOSE Act bill, S. 3295, was introduced on April 29 by Senators Schumer, Feingold, Wyden, Bayh and Franken, and remains pending at this time. The focus of this commentary is on a provision in the Senate bill, but not the House version, that we believe has the potential to have a very significant adverse impact on broadcast station revenues from federal election advertising.
In our previous discussions of the DISCLOSE Act here and here, we pointed out that the Senate bill would allow national committees of any political party (including a national congressional campaign committee of a party) to take advantage of Lowest Unit Charge (LUC) rights previously only available to legally qualified candidates or their official committees. Similarly, it would extend Reasonable Access rights to national party committees which are now only available to federal candidates. In addition, it would effectively make all federal candidate and party committee advertising non-preemptible, regardless of the class of advertising purchased. Stations would also be required to promptly list all requests of candidates and party committees to purchase time on the stations’ web sites.
While troublesome, these and other provisions in the DISCLOSE Act pale in significance, in our view, to the proposed amendment to the LUC provisions of Section 315 of the Communications Act. Under Section 315, as currently in effect, legally qualified candidates for elective office are entitled to receive during specified pre-election periods “the lowest unit charge of the station for the same class and amount of time for the same period” that is then clearing on a station. Under the Senate version of the DISCLOSE Act, federal candidates and party committees (but not state or local candidates) would be entitled to receive the “lowest charge of the station for the same amount of time that was offered at any time during the 180 days preceding the date of use.”
This is troublesome for two reasons. First, the bill eliminates the “same class” and “same period” provisions in current law. Because “class” refers to the level of preemption protection which the advertiser has purchased, federal candidates and committees would be entitled to obtain non-preemptible status while paying rates that commercial advertisers would pay for immediately preemptible spots. Similarly, because “period” refers to the day part or rotation involved, stations could not charge more to federal candidates and committees for the most desirable spot placement – fixed position in prime or drive time – than they charge commercial advertisers for the same length spot that runs in the least desirable time period or rotation – late night or run of schedule (ROS).
Second, the new 180 day look-back provision means that stations will be required to give federal candidates and committees the lowest rate that has run on the station in the past half year, rather than which is currently running on the station. Therefore, if the LUC period occurs during a period of strong advertising demand, or a station has increased its rates due to extrinsic factors, such as improved programming or a format change, the station will still be required to give federal candidates and committees preferential rates that no other advertiser can currently obtain.
We view these provisions, if adopted, as creating a perfect storm for broadcasters. The number of entities entitled to reasonable access and lowest unit charge rights will be greatly expanded. Stations will be required to give non-preemptible access to federal candidates and national party committees in their most desirable time periods at their lowest rates for any advertising. Rather than election years being seen as a period of enhanced revenues for broadcasters, this provision might well cause election years to be viewed as a major drag on station revenues.
For some reason, this proposal to dramatically change the prevailing law has received little publicity in the press or in releases from proponents or opponents of the bill. A little sunshine on this part of the bill appears appropriate.