The equal-time rule specifies that U.S. radio and television broadcast stations must provide an equivalent opportunity to any opposing political candidates who request it. This means, for example, that if a station gives a given amount of time to a candidate in prime time, it must do the same for another candidate who requests it, at the same price if applicable.
This rule originated in §18 of the Radio Act of 1927; it was later superseded by the Communications Act of 1934. A related provision, in §315(b), requires that broadcasters offer time to candidates at the same rate as their "most favored advertiser".
The equal-time rule was created because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was concerned that broadcast stations could easily manipulate the outcome of elections by presenting just one point of view and excluding other candidates.
There are four exceptions to the equal-time rule. If the airing was within a documentary, bona fide news interview, scheduled newscast, or an on-the-spot news event, the equal-time rule does not apply. Since 1983, political debates not hosted by the media station are considered "news events," and as a result, they are not subject to the rule. Consequently, these debates may include only major-party candidates without having to offer air time to minor-party or independent candidates. Talk shows and other regular news programming from syndicators, such as Entertainment Tonight, are also declared exempt from the rule by the FCC on a case-by-case basis.
The equal-time rule was temporarily suspended by Congress in 1960 to permit the Kennedy-Nixon debates to take place.
The equal-time rule should not be confused with the now-defunct FCC fairness doctrine, which dealt with presenting balanced points of view on matters of public importance.
The Zapple Doctrine (part of a specific provision of the fairness doctrine) was similar to the equal-time rule but applied to different political campaign participants. The equal-time rule applies to the political candidate only. The Zapple Doctrine had the same purpose and requirements of equivalent coverage opportunity as the equal-time rule, but its scope included the candidate's spokesman and supporters, not the candidate.
- Miller, Philip (February 11, 2013). Media Law for Producers. CRC Press. p. 340. ISBN 9781136046025. Retrieved March 24, 2016.
- Gardner, Eriq (December 2, 2011). "Anderson Cooper's Talk Show Is a News Program, FCC Rules; The government regulators have determined talk show qualifies as news and is thus exempt from obligations to giving political candidates equal air time". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved December 24, 2011.
- Pietrusza D. 1960:LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon. Union Square Press 2008
- Oxenford, David (May 8, 2014). "FCC Decides that it will No Longer Enforce the Zapple Doctrine – Killing the Last Remnant of the Fairness Doctrine". Broadcast Law Blog. Retrieved September 6, 2017.