Why are TV stations forced to run political ads?

MADISON, Wis. — The wall-to-wall political ads that viewers may see on TV are not uncommon at this point in the election cycle, but much to the chagrin of frustrated viewers, there is little stations can do about it.

Rules from the Federal Communications Commission govern how and when political ads appear on broadcast TV, as UW-Madison journalism professor Katy Culver explains.

“There’s very little that stations can do when it comes to running candidate ads,” Culver said. “They have to run them from legally qualified candidates. They can’t edit or censor them.”

This is largely to protect the candidate so their message can reach voters unfiltered. Culver said this harkens back to fears from almost a century ago.

“All of this regulation came from a concern as television was developing, so in the 1930s and 40s — really deep concerns among some citizens, but especially politicians and opinion leaders… that television stations would have way too much power to control elections,” she said.

How it works — if a station decides to run an ad from any candidate in a specific election, that station will have to allow all candidates in that race to purchase airtime. The station also cannot artificially raise the price of those ad spots to capitalize on the ad blitz during an election year.

The rules are even more restrictive for federal candidates, where the station is not allowed to decline airtime.

Stations are also not allowed to stick controversial ads in timeslots in the middle of the night.

“There was a time where some anti-abortion groups had some pretty graphic TV ads, and broadcasters were not allowed to segment those to low viewership times of day,” Culver said. “There were concerns that the audience would be offended by that content. They went to court and they lost.”

Stations also generally have to abide by an equal time rule for candidates, even for programming that might be considered innocuous.

“In the 2016 primary race for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump actually did an appearance on Saturday Night Live for 12 minutes and under the equal time rule, NBC had to give 12 minutes to all of the other remaining Republican candidates in the primary,” Culver said.

“So it can be really interesting when you have entertainers who become politicians that can trigger a lot of equal time issues,” she added.

This, however, does not apply to news content, over which stations maintain editorial control.

“There’s an exception for bonafide news coverage, so the 6 p.m. news on Channel 3 or the For the Record Sunday morning show, those are not covered by the equal time rule,” she said.

Despite those regulations, there are some protections afforded to stations. Stations airing ads under the Equal Time Rule, for example, cannot be sued based on the content contained in the ad — those suits would have to be directed at the candidate making the ad.