The secret to effective political time buying lies in the broadcast station political file.
The File Contents
For political time buyers, the broadcast station political file and disclosure statement provides the critical information necessary to effective advertising purchases at each particular station. With this information, a campaign is armed with data required to decide on the class of time and rates best suited to accomplishing its message delivery goal.
All broadcast stations must keep a political file containing information detail on all requests to purchase political broadcast time, whether or not made on behalf of a legally qualified candidate. Covered are all messages relating to any political matter of national importance, including legally qualified candidates, any election to federal office or a national legislative issue of public importance. The records must contain the following information:
• Whether the request to purchase broadcast time was accepted or rejected
• The rate charged for the broadcast time
• The date and time on which the broadcast is aired
• The class of time purchased
• The name of the candidate, office, election or issue to which the communication refers (as applicable)
• If a request is made by, or on behalf of, a candidate, then the name of the candidate, the authorized committee of the candidate and the treasurer of such committee
In the event of any other requests, the name of the person purchasing the time, the name, address and phone number of a contact person for such purchaser, and a list of the chief executive officers or members of the executive committee or board of directors of such purchaser
All requests for political broadcast time – including equal opportunities – must be reduced to writing and kept in the political file. This rule applies only to specific requests for time and that mere inquiries as to rates or for general information are not included.
Access to the Political File
The political file must be maintained at the same location as the station’s local public inspection file. Generally, this will be the station’s main studio. It must be available for inspection during all normal business hours, plus at other times (especially close to an election) as necessary to apprise candidates of potential equal opportunities. Prior appointments cannot be required. Those seeking to inspect the file may be asked for personal identification (name and address only) but no other information, including organizational affiliation or the purpose of the request. Abusive behavior by a party seeking inspection may justify denial of further access.
Although traditionally the political file is kept in paper form, the trend of the future clearly is toward electronic databases. If the file is in electronic form, a computer terminal must be available to afford access to the contents of the file. Unlike requests for other items in a station’s public file, telephonic requests for information in the political file need not be answered, although stations should adopt and apply a uniform policy for all such requests, to assure that no favoritism is displayed.
The Federal Communications Commission emphasizes that the file must be kept “neat and accurate” so that “anyone viewing the contents of this file will be able readily to discern what the station has sold or otherwise provided to each and every candidate.” Some stations will provide assistance to those accessing their program logs, particularly to candidates requesting this information.
The political file must be maintained for two years following an election, after which the file may be discarded, unless there is a claim against the station licensee or an investigation by the Commission for which material in the political file is relevant.
The political log should be updated on a daily basis and made available as part of the station’s public inspection file. A primary purpose of the political file is to permit opposing candidates or their representatives to determine whether they are entitled to equal opportunities triggered by political broadcasts of their opponents.
In lieu of keeping a separate political log, some stations may keep a file of Agreement Forms. Note, however, that all forms requesting time must be placed in the file – even if the request is refused. If a “form file” is used, it must be supplemented with a log of any gifts of free time. Rebate information also must be included in the political file.
The political file is the primary means by which candidates, the public and the Commission can monitor a licensee’s compliance with the political broadcasting rules. A 1990 audit of 30 stations revealed that some did not have complete and well-organized political files and the Commission assessed forfeitures against such licensees. Under the Commission’s current guidelines, the base forfeiture is $7,500 for each violation of the rule requiring maintenance of a political file and $12,500 for each violation of other aspects of the political broadcasting rules. That sounds like it might be worth a little preventive maintenance.
Gregg Skall is a Washington DC based attorney specializing in all things media and FCC. If you have a comment, suggestion, or want more information, you can reach him at (202) 857-4441 or [email protected].