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Randall Terry Pushes the FCC’s Political Envelope

The FCC today released a political advertising decision that, while perhaps not surprising, will still alarm many broadcasters. Back in February, I wrote a pair of posts (here and here) about Randall Terry, who was then seeking airtime during the Superbowl to air ads featuring graphic footage of aborted fetuses, ostensibly in support of his effort to become the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. It appears that the Democratic Party didn’t want him, as the Democratic National Committee sent stations a letter asserting that Terry was not a candidate for the Democratic nomination and was not entitled to the broadcast airtime benefits legally qualified federal candidates receive.

In my first post in February, I noted that Section 312 of the Communications Act, which requires broadcast stations to grant “reasonable access” to airtime for federal candidates, was growing increasingly susceptible to a First Amendment challenge, and that the situation presented by the Terry ads — broadcasters being forced to air visually repugnant material that they would otherwise never subject their audience to, regardless of their own political bent — represents just the kind of scenario that might motivate broadcasters to challenge this statutory requirement. It certainly gives a judge or Congress an appealing set of facts to consider overturning or reforming the current law.

It is also worth noting that broadcasters are not allowed to channel such ads into parts of the day when children are less likely to be in the audience. This inability to channel such ads away from children has always been curious, as a candidate can hardly complain about being unable to reach an audience that is too young to vote anyway (and the candidate is of course free to reach out to them with more age-appropriate ads in any event). Indeed, the FCC, which has done a respectable job over the years of applying the Communications Act’s political ad requirements in the real world, once held that broadcasters could choose to shift such ads away from kid-friendly hours. The FCC was rebuffed in court, however, in a decision that focused entirely on how such channeling could infringe upon a candidate’s freedom of expression, seemingly oblivious to the freedom of expression of stations unwilling to subject their child viewers to such content.

As I wrote in my second post, the FCC was able to avoid a confrontation over recent Terry ads for a bit longer when it ruled in February that Terry was not a legally qualified presidential candidate on the Illinois ballot (where the station being challenged was located). It also ruled that even had that not been the case, the station was reasonable in turning down a request for Superbowl ad time since it is a uniquely popular event in which the station might well find it impossible to accommodate ads from competing candidates demanding “equal opportunities” under the Communications Act to air their ads in the Superbowl as well.

Knowing how attractive the plum of guaranteed ad time at a station’s lowest unit charge is to anyone wishing to get their message out there, it came as no surprise when the Terry campaign, now running Terry as an independent candidate, filed another complaint, this time against Washington, DC station WUSA(TV). Terry sought access on the basis of being a legally qualified candidate in West Virginia, a small portion of which, he asserted, falls within WUSA(TV)’s signal.

The station rejected Terry’s ads, noting that Terry was not a legally qualified candidate in its DC/Maryland/Virginia service area. When challenged at the FCC, it submitted a Longley-Rice signal contour map, which takes blocking terrain (e.g., mountains) into account, and which indicated that the station’s actual coverage of West Virginia was slim to none (“de minimis” in FCC parlance).

In determining where reasonable access must be granted, the FCC looks at a station’s “normal service area”, and for TV, it has generally considered a station’s Grade B contour to be the “normal service area”. The transition to digital TV, however, has eliminated the analog concept of a Grade B contour. In reaching today’s decision, the FCC concluded that since the FCC considers a digital station’s Noise Limited Service Contour (NLSC) to be the equivalent of an analog Grade B contour in other FCC contexts, it is appropriate to use the NLSC as the appropriate “normal service area” for purposes of reasonable access complaints. While engineers readily acknowledge that Longley-Rice contour analysis is a more accurate predictor of actual signal reception than the NLSC, Longley-Rice analysis can be complex, and it appears the FCC opted for the simplicity and bright line certainty of using the NLSC. While the NLSC represents a somewhat hypothetical coverage area, NLSC coverage maps are widely available, including on the FCC’s own website, making it an easier tool for candidates to utilize in planning their media buys.

Since, according to the FCC, WUSA(TV)’s NLSC covers nearly 3% of West Virginia’s population, the FCC concluded in today’s decision that the station was unreasonable in rejecting Terry’s ads. While the FCC’s decision is a pragmatic one, it adds more kindling to the reasonable access fire, as stations are now forced to offend their audiences with content from candidates that are legally qualified in any area that is within their NLSC service area, whether or not actual TV reception exists. This not only increases the number of reasonable access requests stations may face, but will further antagonize their viewers, who might understand why a station has to air ads for a candidate that is on the ballot in their area, but will be particularly perplexed as to why a station is airing offensive content from a candidate they have never heard of and cannot vote for or against. When Congress drafted the reasonable access and “no censorship of political ads” provisions of the Communications Act, it probably assumed that extreme content would not be a problem since a candidate was unlikely to air such content if he or she wanted to be elected. However, that logic evaporates when the viewing audience doesn’t even have the opportunity to vote against such a candidate.

While the FCC appears to have been concerned that a more complex contour analysis could be gamed by a broadcaster, the result instead unfortunately encourages issue activists of every persuasion to game the system for their own gain. In the present case, it is pretty obvious that buying very expensive airtime in the nation’s capital is not a cost-effective way of reaching less than 3% of the voters in West Virginia, and that the real audience is the large DC-area population for which Terry was apparently unable to qualify to be on the ballot. That became even more obvious when WUSA(TV) provided the Longley-Rice contour map indicating that the station actually had little or no coverage in West Virginia, but the Terry campaign nonetheless continued to press for airtime on the station.

The obvious path for future issue activists is to declare their candidacy for federal office, but instead of doing the hard work of qualifying for the ballot in large population centers in order to be heard, taking the easier path of qualifying for the ballot in less populated surrounding areas that are just within the fringe coverage of a big market station’s predicted NLSC coverage. By following this formula, they get guaranteed access to airtime in front of a large market audience, and at much lower rates than commercial advertisers would pay, with the added benefit that the station cannot edit the ad or decline to air it no matter how offensive the content.

For those who make the not unreasonable argument that putting up with some questionable exploitation of the political ad rules is necessary to ensure that legitimate candidates can get their message out, consider the following: only federal candidates have a right of reasonable access. In this heated political season, particularly in the heavily contested large population centers, stations have been forced to preempt the spots of many of their normal commercial advertisers to make room for political spots for federal candidates (seen a car ad lately?), and local and state candidates have similarly suffered from having their ads pushed aside to make way for federal candidate ads. As a result, forcing broadcasters to air content that offends adult viewers, disturbs child viewers, and damages the relationship of trust between the broadcaster and its public harms more than just the broadcaster and its audience. It harms each and every local and state candidate that actually is on the ballot in a station’s market. They too would like to get their message out, but in their case, to people who can actually vote for them and that are affected by who is elected to represent them. To the extent that “all politics is local”, it make little sense to shunt aside these local and state candidates merely to guarantee access to those using the Communications Act’s “federal formula” to game the system for their own agendas.

While today’s decision is not one that will be welcomed by broadcasters, make no mistake, it is not the FCC’s fault that we have reached this point. The reasonable access requirements for federal candidates are encoded into the Communications Act, and there is only so much the FCC can do in applying the statute in a political landscape that is far more complex than those who drafted these provisions likely ever contemplated. With election season nearly over, and many stations sold out of airtime through the election, the immediate impact of today’s decision will be limited. It is a safe bet, however, that the underlying issue will continue to haunt future elections.