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What Does the FCC's Equal-Time Rule Actually Say?

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Donald Trump’s rumored presidential candidacy has sparked fresh interest in the FCC’s equal-time rules. What would Trump’s candidacy mean for The Celebrity Apprentice? Would NBC have to give Trump’s competitors their own primetime reality shows? Even though Trump has bowed out of the race, let’s take a look at some questions about the frequently discussed equal-time rules.

Why do these rules exist in the first place?

The equal-time rules exist for a pretty simple reason: radio and TV stations would theoretically be able to sway elections by refusing to sell ad time to a candidate. Progressives feared this outcome as far back as the 1920s, so legislators worked equal-time rules into the Radio Act of 1927.

If everyone gets equal time, why aren’t we inundated with ads from minor parties every election?

The way the term “equal time” is often used is a bit misleading.

The rules state that if a station gives free airtime to one candidate, it has to offer an equivalent amount of free time to all candidates.

When it comes to campaign ads, though, stations just have to offer candidates the opportunity to buy time at the same rates they offer their most favored advertisers. If you’re a Democratic or Republican candidate with deep pockets, coming up with the cash to buy these spots is no problem. On the other hand, if you’re the candidate of America’s Independent Party, having the opportunity to buy a primetime spot isn’t all that useful if you don’t have a sufficient war chest to foot the bill.

Were these rules easy to implement?

Not so much. It took decades of challenges and fine-tuning to craft a relatively reasonable set of equal-time rules. For example, take the situation that arose in Chicago in 1959.

Two Chicago TV stations broadcast video of longtime Mayor Richard J. Daley greeting an Argentine diplomat at the airport during their news programs. Pretty standard mayoral news, right? Perennial fringe candidate Lar Daly didn’t think so. Daly had a history of running for office – any office – each time there was an election. He often campaigned dressed in an Uncle Sam outfit, which probably undercut the gravity of his bids a wee bit. In 1959, he was gunning for Daley’s spot as Chicago’s mayor.

Daly appealed to the FCC that the news stations’ coverage of Mayor Daley’s day-to-day activities constituted “use” of the stations. Daly in turn claimed that since the stations had given Mayor Daley this free airtime, he was entitled to an equal amount. The FCC agreed, and Daly got his fringy moments in the sun.

What happened to these loopholes?

After the Daly/Daley debacle, Congress acted to fix these obvious problems. Eventually, the equal-time rules changed to include four exceptions. If the airtime comes in a documentary, a scheduled newscast, a news interview show, or in the coverage of an on-the-spot news event, it doesn’t play in to the equal-time rules.

Any other notable exceptions?

For years televised debates fell under the equal-time umbrella. In 1960 Congress passed a temporary joint resolution that allowed networks to air the debates between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon without having to include minor candidates.

That suspension of equal-time rules was only temporary, but the FCC later changed its policy regarding debates. As long as the networks themselves weren’t organizing the debates, the showdowns could be considered on-the-spot news events to which the equal-time rules didn’t apply.

What if a candidate has been in movies and TV shows?

© John Gress/Reuters/Corbis

That’s where things get interesting. When former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson began mounting a bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination during the summer of 2007, NBC found itself in a tight spot. Thompson had also appeared in 116 episodes of the network’s hit show Law & Order. NBC announced that it would cease airing reruns of episodes in which Thompson appeared until his campaign ended. Otherwise, the network could have been compelled to offer free equal time to all candidates for every second Thompson appeared on the screen.

Thompson’s candidacy wasn’t the first time networks had faced this decision. Michael D. Shear of The Washington Post noted that in 2003, networks stopped airing Arnold Schwarzenegger flicks during his bid to become California’s governor. (Presumably the networks did the same thing with the dramatic output of fellow candidate Gary Coleman.) Similarly, Ronald Reagan’s movies fell out of the broadcast cycle during his gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.

Do these rules apply to cable networks?

That’s a good question, and it’s also one that doesn’t have a simple answer. As Scott Horsley reported on NPR’s Morning Edition during the discussion of the Thompson/Law & Order issue, equal time on national cable networks is a bit of a gray area. TNT kept broadcasting the Thompson episodes of L&O during his campaign without any repercussions. (Networks only have to provide equal-time if an opposing candidate asks for it, and apparently none of Thompson’s Republican rivals felt like forcing the question over a few reruns.)

When Horsley interviewed former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson for his piece, though, Johnson admitted that even though the equal-time rules haven’t been applied to national cable networks yet, there might be a legal case for extending the rules in that direction. As attorney David Oxenford noted in a post on the Broadcast Law Blog last month, this question is still unresolved.

Do the equal-time rules kick in as soon as someone announces their candidacy?

No. For the purposes of the rule, an office-seeker has to be a legally qualified candidate, which means they’ve filed all of the necessary paperwork to appear on the ballot. As David Oxenford notes in the aforementioned blog post, the “legally qualified candidate” provision would have allowed Donald Trump to formally announce his campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination on the finale of The Celebrity Apprentice with little risk of blowback for NBC. Since Trump is not yet a legally qualified candidate, equal-time rules don’t yet apply to him.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
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Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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