Why TV stations don’t censor political ads

Federally licensed broadcasters must follow certain requirements laid out by the FCC

. (KSAT)

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It’s that time of year again.

Seemingly nonstop campaign ads on television, radio and the internet from candidates and political groups.

In the weeks before an election — local, state or federal — most people will see or hear dozens of political ads without seeking them out.

But who decides when, where and if the ads run? And why doesn’t KSAT just say no?

The answer is relatively straightforward: KSAT is required by law to run many ads, and has made a longstanding decision to stay out of censoring political speech in the interest of robust public discussion around elections.

Two types of ads

There are two types of political ads: candidate ads and issue ads.

Candidate ads are directly paid for and approved by the authorized campaign of an officeholder or candidate.

Issue ads, on the other hand, are NOT paid for or approved by a candidate or their campaign. Instead, they are produced and air time is purchased by other advertisers including political action committees (PACs), LLCs and corporations.

Both types of ads can feature similar content - positive or negative information about a candidate or their opponent - and you might not be able to tell them immediately apart without the sponsor messaging shown in fine print at the end of the ad.

However, issue ads sometimes leave candidates entirely out of the mix and urge viewers to vote in favor of or against some type of ballot measure.

Legal requirements for broadcasters

Legal requirements are one of the few differences between candidate and issue ads.

FCC-licensed broadcasters, like KSAT 12, are required to provide “reasonable access” for all legally qualified federal candidates to purchase advertising time in the period leading up to an election. Those requirements are laid out in the Federal Communications Act.

Further, broadcasters must offer candidates the lowest rate they charge for the type of advertising time during that period. Stations must also make that (and other) information publicly available in a so-called political file.

Also, broadcasters cannot edit candidate ads.

But the law provides an exception for both local and state candidates: If broadcasters choose, they can decide to reject all political ads from all candidates in a given local or state race each election, but they cannot pick and choose which ads or which candidates to accept.

For KSAT, that is an exception that is not used. That’s because we believe that it is not our role to pick and choose which candidates have access to voters and which do not.

KSAT is not legally required to accept issue ads (ads paid for by PACs, LLCs, corporations or other political groups).

However, for the same reason that it does not reject all candidate ads for state and local races, KSAT does not reject issue ads.

Simply put, we do not see value in a TV station gatekeeping political speech that is protected under the First Amendment.

Cable channels and digital-only platforms are not held to all the same requirements as federally licensed broadcasters, which can add to a viewer’s confusion about rules around political advertising.

Why is footage from KSAT in a political ad?

Another common misconception about political ads on TV is that television stations are somehow involved in the production of the campaign ads.

People who produce political ads may use footage that aired on television, typically from a local or national newscast, in their ads.

This does not mean that they had permission from the television station or network to use the footage.

The producers of political ads instead often rely on a legal doctrine called “fair use,” which is a defense to a copyright infringement claim.

Even if a local television station did not grant permission to a candidate or his/her campaign to use the footage, that television station cannot edit or censor a candidate ad and has to run it as is.


About the Author:

Kolten Parker is digital executive producer at KSAT. Previously, he worked at the San Antonio Express-News and the Texas Observer.