The equal-time rule specifies that American radio and television broadcast stations must provide equivalent access to competing political candidates. This means, for example, that if a station broadcasts a message by a candidate in prime time, it must offer the same amount of time on the same terms to an opposing candidate.
This rule originated in §18 of the Radio Act of 1927 which established the Federal Radio Commission; it was later superseded by the Communications Act of 1934, with the FRC becoming the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission. 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 due to concerns that broadcast stations could easily manipulate the outcome of elections by presenting just one point of view and excluding other candidates.
There are several 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 directly by a station or network are considered "news events," and as a result, they are not subject to the rule. Usually, these debates are coordinated through a third party such as the Commission on Presidential Debates, a state broadcaster's association, a newspaper independent of a television station/network, or the League of Women Voters. Consequently, these debates usually include only major-party candidates without having to offer airtime to minor-party or independent candidates, or inflammatory candidates who intend only to disrupt the proceedings.
- 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 also can prove to disrupt regular entertainment programming. In the past, Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Donald Trump had their past programs and films removed from broadcast as they campaigned for political office. Dr. Mehmet Oz declared his candidacy on November 30, 2021 for the Republican U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, thus forcing television stations in Pennsylvania and surrounding states to drop his daily syndicated talk show from their schedule as part of the equal-time rule, and forcing Sony Pictures Television to line up alternate programming. Continued carriage of an entertainer's programming would have placed those stations in the position of offering the same hour of time to the other competitors in a political race daily, no matter the party. SPT and Oz since decided to discontinue the show entirely, replacing it with a lifestyle and food show hosted by his daughter Daphne in which he will not appear.
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.
- Battaglio, Stephen (November 30, 2021). "Here's what happens to Dr. Oz's talk show now that he's running for Senate". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 1, 2021.
- Otterson, Joe (December 13, 2021). "'Dr. Oz Show' to End in January as Host Pursues Pennsylvania Senate Run". Variety. Retrieved December 13, 2021.
- 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.