Gray TV’s guide to political ads

Published: Oct. 18, 2020 at 11:00 PM EDT

WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Political ads are everywhere during an election year. You can’t avoid them.

We get a lot of questions from viewers about this topic: Why does our TV station run them? Can we censor them? Do we have to give air time to all candidates?

In this Gray TV guide to political ads, we’ll break down the federal rules on political advertising.

Broadcast TV stations rely on advertising to make money. Politicians buy ad time to help them reach voters. And the Federal Communications Commission makes the rules.

It is important to note that there are two types of political ads: candidate ads and issue ads.

“The candidate ads -- those are coming directly from the candidate or their authorized campaign committee," said Joan Stewart, a lawyer at Wiley, who specializes in FCC rules. “An issue ad is coming from either an individual, a corporation, a political action committee – somebody outside of that campaign circle."

We asked Stewart to answer a question we get a lot: Does our TV station have to run issue and candidate ads?

“Stations have no obligation to air issue advertising," explained Stewart. “Candidate ads – it depends on the type of candidate. Stations are legally obligated to give what’s called ‘reasonable access’ to federal candidates. This means they must provide at least some of the time requested by a federal candidate.”

Federal candidates are those running for president, vice president, U.S. House, and U.S. Senate. They also have to be ‘legally qualified’ – meaning they have announced they are running and are qualified to hold the office they are seeking, among other qualifications.

So, if our station runs an ad for one candidate, do we have to run ads for the competitors too?

Stewart explained, “A one-out candidate comes in and buys a schedule – maybe it has some great primetime spots, maybe they appear in sports programming -- their opposing candidate has the right to come in and say, ‘I want as close to an equivalent schedule as you can give me for the same price.’ And the station has to do their best to accommodate that request."

This is called ‘equal time.’ Equal time doesn’t just apply to advertising. Any appearance on our station by one legally qualified candidate gives the opposing candidates an opportunity to request equal time, although there are some exemptions.

“If, for example, a candidate appears on a news program, and what they’re doing is newsworthy -- maybe you’re covering their campaign or something like that -- that is not subject to equal time,” explained Stewart.

The other candidates have seven days to request equal time.

Our station has to keep detailed files about the political ads we run and make them available for the public to view.

“Now, everything has gone online," explained Matt Eldredge, general manager at Gray TV station KOLO 8 News Now in Reno, Nev. "There’s a link on our website, and they can access our FCC site, and we have to put…the schedule. The schedule has what [campaigns] purchased, the dates, the times, and so forth.”

Eldredge’s station –- and all of our Gray Television stations -- are responsible for making sure there are key elements in every political ad before it airs.

“They have to provide identification of who is sponsoring the ad or who is paying for the ad,” Eldredge explained.

Federal candidates must also make this statement verbally: “I’m (name), and I approved this ad.”

State or local candidates, with some exceptions, only need to disclose sponsorship in writing.

“The font has to be 4% of the screen and last for at least four seconds," said Eldredge.

Our station is not responsible for the content of the ads. We often hear from viewers who think they are offensive or full of lies.

“By FCC rule, we cannot censor or refuse to run a candidate ad, regardless of the claims that are made in the ad," said Eldredge.

The no censorship rule does not apply to issue ads, since our station does not have to run them.

So, the next time you see a political ad run on our station, you’ll know more about why we air them.

Links to FCC rules:

Wiley’s Political Advertising 101:

To view Gray TV stations' public inspection files:

On a Gray TV station’s homepage, scroll to the bottom of the website. You’ll see a link for either “Public Inspection File” or “FCC Public File.”

Senior reporter/executive producer Ted Fioraliso contributed to this report.

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