While it may not sound like it, this story might wind up being good news for future campaigns. As you will recall, Saturday Night Live tossed Hillary Clinton a huge favor a few weeks ago when they had her appear on the show as a friendly bartender talking to her SNL doppelganger. Shortly after that we learned that Donald Trump had been invited to host the show, no doubt including multiple skits for him to star in. For both of these campaigns that’s potentially good news because it’s hits a young audience that probably doesn’t spend their entire day with their eyes glued to either C-SPAN or CNN. How they handle the opportunity is up to them, but if you can’t handle the heat you should stay out of the sketch comedy kitchen. (The folks who run that show hated Sarah Palin and yet she managed to turn an appearance on the show into a huge plus.)
But with Trump taking the stage, the FCC has been roused from their long slumber and will now enforce equal time rules for the campaigns. Or so they think. (National Journal)
The head of the Federal Communications Commission promised Thursday to enforce his agency’s regulations requiring television stations to give political candidates equal opportunities for airtime.
“The rules are pretty clear. Rules are rules,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told reporters Thursday. “I hope that we have developed a reputation as folks who enforce the rules.”
Hillary Clinton’s appearance earlier this month on Saturday Night Live could trigger the so-called “equal-time” rules, as could Donald Trump’s plan to host the long-running NBC comedy show next month. That doesn’t necessarily mean Lincoln Chafee will be the next host of SNL—but it could mean that local NBC affiliates across the country will have to give presidential candidates access to equal TV time.
The rule in question was passed in 1934 when there were approximately five televisions in the country and radio stations generally stuck to “news as news” and they didn’t invite political candidates to do guest appearances on The Shadow. I suppose the intention was a good one, but as the medium has expanded over the years the rules have struggled to keep up. They don’t apply to cable TV, but the network stations are, in theory, supposed to give equal time to “legally qualified” candidates. But even there the implementation of the rules is fuzzy at best. News programs are excluded (which make sense) but they lump late night talk shows in with them. Jimmy Kimmel has a news show? Who knew?
So how will they handle the situation with Trump hosting SNL? He may wind up having thirty or more minutes on screen. The FCC admits that they can’t turn around and force NBC to let the other two Democrats and the remaining 15 Republicans all host the show or even appear on it. So they will have to force “local NBC affiliates” around the country to provide an equal number of minutes to all the rest. Does that sound like a fair deal or anything remotely resembling equality? Trump gets thirty minutes on SNL which gets rebroadcast endlessly in clips on all the cable news shows for days on end and Ted Cruz gets fifteen minutes each on two different cooking shows in Albuquerque and Boise?
SNL is entertainment (depending on your tastes) and they cover political topics. You’re either going to have to ban “legally qualified” candidates from appearing on all such shows or give up the ghost. There’s too broad of a menu of television options today to ever attempt the level of control they’re trying for and all shows are not created equally. Rather than stepping in to enforce this rule, perhaps this is a good opportunity to take a fresh look at either repealing it entirely or at least scaling it back a bit.