What Does Donald Trump's 'SNL' Appearance Mean for the FCC's "Equal Time" Rule?

NBC could be put in a tough spot from one of Trump's rivals.
Courtesy of NBC

Donald Trump is doing business again with NBCUniversal after an announcement on Tuesday that he will be hosting Saturday Night Live on November 7. So what about Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Trump’s rivals for the Republican throne? Do they too get to host SNL? Live from New York… It’s Lindsey Graham?!

Other Republican presidential candidates may look to the FCC for answers.

The FCC has something that’s commonly known as the “Equal Time” rule. If a broadcast station gives one candidate airtime in anything other than a newscast or news interview program, the other candidates shall be afforded equal opportunity. This doesn’t necessarily mean the same opportunity. Sorry, Lindsey Graham. You won’t be hosting SNL anytime soon. But it could mean that NBC stations have the obligation to let other candidates appear for free for an equal amount of time.

NBCU has likely been thinking about this scenario for quite some time. After all, Trump hosted The Apprentice while actively flirting with a presidential run for many years. Before he actually did run, it was presumed he would no longer be allowed to be on The Apprentice if he entered the race for this precise reason.

Trump is now running, and he’s no longer host of The Apprentice, but surprise … NBC is back into this same issue thanks to Trump’s upcoming appearance on SNL.

Last week, after Hillary Clinton appeared on SNL, NBC affiliates filed an equal time notice with the FCC. (So far, there hasn’t been word of any response from Bernie Sanders.) According to THR contributing editor Bill Carter, NBC has considered the equal time question with regards to Trump’s SNL spot and will address any requests received.

According to John Garziglia, a former attorney at the FCC and now a partner at Womble Carlyle, the other Republican candidates will have seven days after Trump's appearance to make equal opportunity demands upon NBC stations. Once that happens, the hard decisions will come.

The first question, says Garziglia, will be whether Trump is a “legally-qualified” candidate under FCC rules. If not, there’s no need to give other candidates equal time. Trump says he’s running and he’s leading the polls. But has he actually filed the paperwork to make it onto the ballots of 10 states? The answer could become important.

Although NBC hasn’t suggested it will put up a fight, it could argue that SNL should be treated under the news exemption to the equal time rule. Given that the program is scripted, though, such an argument would be a stretch.

For now, NBC is probably holding its breath that no other candidate will make a demand. In past years, broadcasters have repeatedly taken chances here and gotten away with it. For example, when Fred Thompson ran for president in 2008, TNT decided to air re-runs of Law & Order despite some concern of setting off the “equal time” rule. And even though some NBC affiliates wouldn’t air Al Sharpton’s SNL appearance in 2003 when he was running for president, the long-running variety show has hosted many candidates for office without objection.

If NBC actually does hear from Ben Carson or George Pataki (seriously, what does he has to lose?), NBC may have to go to court with a First Amendment argument. “Sooner or later, in the same way that Citizens United made an important decision about speech, the FCC’s scheme for political time will be ruled unconstitutional,” believes Garziglia.

In the meantime, perhaps aided by Trump’s taste for putting down his fellow rivals, SNL can make fun of the equal time rule. That’s exactly what the program did in 2002 when Tina Fey greeted John McCain.

“It's an honor to have Sen. John McCain on the show tonight, but, according to network policy, you must give equal time to a member of another political party,” Fey told audiences. “So, with us now, to share some of his political views, is senatorial candidate Tim Calhoun.”

Calhoun was played by Will Forte, who then responded:

“I'm Tim Calhoun. And I'm running for the office of Senator. A lot of people don't know who Tim Calhoun is. So I'm going to tell you who Tim Calhoun is, and why I think Tim Calhoun should be the next senator. I, Tim Calhoun, am.. nice.. [ flips index card ] ..trustworthy.. genuine.. likes music.. dances.. [ very quietly ] ..aggressive. [ flips index card ] I have used a lot of some drugs, and some not at all. Mainly pot and beer. But a little bit of cocaine. I'm real sorry about that cocaine. But there are times when I feel like partying and staying up really late.. and cocaine can really help you do that. [ flips index card ] I am not married. So my sexual history is not relevant. But, if you must know, I had some babies. Mainly by black ladies. But some by white. And a China baby. [ flips index card ] I love whales. But they have to go. So I'm going to organize a whaling party that will not stop until all whales are dead. [ flips index card ] America needs another big lake. In conclusion, and in summary, you can't spell ‘America’ without ‘Tim Calhoun.’ And the letters R, E, and A. The End.”

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