Trump’s SNL Appearance Could Lead to Free Airtime for GOP Candidates

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On Saturday, November 7, Donald Trump will host Saturday Night Live, which in addition to being particularly entertaining television could lead to free airtime for his opponents.

Dating all the way back to the Communications Act of 1934, broadcast channels that feature a candidate for federal office provide “equal opportunity” to opposing candidates who request their airtime. While there are several notable exceptions for news programming, this rule basically entitles Trump’s opposition to request free airtime on all NBC affiliates that air Saturday Night Live.

Because Trump is hosting the show, he will probably get somewhere between 20 to 25 minutes of airtime, which means that if his opponents submit free time requests NBC affiliate stations could be on the hook for a lot of free airtime. But this is also where several questions emerge. Equal opportunity only applies to “qualified candidates,” which according to the rule must have filed all of the necessary paperwork and made a “substantial showing” of his or her intention to seek the nomination. Any Republican who can prove that he or she is a qualified candidate may be entitled to free airtime.

The rule applies to all NBC affiliates that air SNL but not the network itself, meaning that individual stations would be charged with negotiating equal opportunity airtime. So far, most campaigns have focused on early primary and caucus states like Iowa and New Hampshire, which means that candidates’ requests may not meet the requirements in all states. Requests also need to be made within a week of Trump’s SNL appearance, but if airtime is granted candidates are entitled to do whatever they want with it.

While news programming is exempt from the equal opportunity rule, Saturday Night Live is subject to equal opportunity requests. In fact, this came up recently when Hillary Clinton made an impromptu appearance on the show. Her brief part in a sketch caused the New York NBC affiliate to notify the FCC that Clinton appeared on air without charge for three minutes and 12 seconds. As a result, Clinton’s opponents in the Democratic party were entitled to make equal opportunity claims, and one of them did. Lawrence Lessig, who at the time was running for president as a Democrat (but no longer is) asked 47 NBC affiliates for the same amount of airtime that they afforded to Clinton.

This is not the first time an equal opportunity issue has come up with a Saturday Night Live host. As Politifact points out, the show had Al Sharpton host back in 2003, which sparked concern over how the network would deal with equal opportunity claims. Senator Joe Lieberman, one of Sharpton’s opponents for the Democratic nomination, made a request and ended up getting free time–he was given a 28-minute segment to air a town hall discussion on NBC affiliates in California and Missouri. But based on the show’s opening scene in 2003, it’s pretty clear that they knew what they were doing when they invited Sharpton to host. Check out the video:


The rule’s original intention makes sense when you consider the media landscape several decades ago–broadcast television had much less competition than it does today and networks had significant of influence over the information people were exposed to. This rule essentially prevented networks from special treatment to specific candidates. But now, the idea of equal opportunity may seem a little weird. With the rise of cable and the internet, the media is much more fragmented than it was in the past, yet this rule only applies to broadcast media.

As Phillip Bump at the Washington Post points out, if Trump’s episode of SNL was only shown online, rather than broadcast over public airwaves, the rule would not apply. Some argue that equal opportunity is simply outdated and that the FCC should get rid of it. After all, the Federal Elections Commission is still able to punish media outlets if it considers their treatment of was candidate unfair. But barring a significant reinterpretation of the law, it looks like it will continue to be an option for candidates during this election cycle.

Kevin Rizzo
Kevin Rizzo is the Crime in America Editor at Law Street Media. An Ohio Native, the George Washington University graduate is a founding member of the company. Contact Kevin at krizzo@LawStreetMedia.com.



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