Broadcasters Get OK to Dole Out Free Ads to Everyone But Politicians

Lucy Does A TV Commercial Still - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Fathom Events

Times are tough in the advertisement business. How tough? The Federal Communications Commission now says that because of the financial difficulties arising from the novel coronavirus, broadcast television and radio stations may provide free time to commercial advertisers without consequence this election season.

Technically, there's nothing stopping broadcasters from filling excess ad time inventory any way they wish — well, except for the Communications Act of 1934, which allows a candidate for public office to take advantage of a station's "lowest unit charge" in the 45 days preceding a primary election and 60 days preceding a general election. This means if some pharmaceutical company gets free ads, it's possible that Donald Trump, Joe Biden or even the local sheriff could demand the same.

Knowing that rule, the National Association of Broadcasters told the FCC that its customers were canceling their advertising contracts in the wake of COVID-19, and with TV air time to fill, the broadcasters wanted to give away ad slots for the sake of maintaining relationships. But could the FCC do something about those opportunistic politicians?

"Given the current circumstances, the public interest dictates that broadcasters … may exclude the free time that they provide to commercial advertisers when calculating their lowest unit charges, provided the free time is not associated with an existing commercial contract for paid time or otherwise considered bonus spots," responds the FCC's Media Bureau in a public notice on Wednesday. "We do not believe that broadcasters should be discouraged at this time from airing free advertisements because of the impact that doing so could have on the calculation of their lowest unit changes."