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No, political candidates are not guaranteed equal amounts of TV ad time

The law only says candidates must have equal opportunity to get the same amount of TV ad time as their opponents at the same price.

With the upcoming general election for the 2022 midterms on Nov. 8, more and more political advertisements are hitting the airwaves.

A VERIFY viewer in Texas told us she was seeing a lot of ads for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, but not as many for his Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke. That raises a question a lot of people have during election season: Aren't candidates guaranteed equal amounts of ad time on television?

THE QUESTION

Are political candidates guaranteed equal amounts of TV ad time?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, candidates are not guaranteed equal TV ad time. Candidates are guaranteed equal opportunity to acquire time for an equal price from television stations and networks as their opponent.

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WHAT WE FOUND

The idea of equal time for candidates on TV comes from the Communications Act of 1934, which is enforced by the FCC

It says that if a candidate appears for more than 4 seconds on a TV or radio station’s air, that station “shall afford equal opportunities to all other such candidates for that office.”

But there are some big exceptions. Notably, news coverage or interviews don’t count. Advertisements count, as does entertainment programming.

For example, during President Ronald Reagan’s campaign, some stations stopped airing old movies he starred in. And more recently, when Mehmet Oz started his Pennsylvania Senate campaign, he stopped making his TV show “Doctor Oz”  – in part because any station that aired it would’ve had to offer the same amount of free air time to his opponent John Fetterman.

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The most important specification of the law is the use of the phrase “equal opportunities” rather than “equal time.” 

According to FCC guidelines, this means that if a candidate buys an ad for $1,000 in primetime, the station has to give their opponent the option to purchase an ad for the same price at the same time. But if the opponent can’t afford it, or just doesn’t want to buy that ad space, the station doesn’t have to do anything else; they’ve given them equal opportunity.

“It doesn't mean that [the station] has to give, at the end of the day, the same amount of real time, if some candidates have more money and could actually purchase more time,” said David Schultz, a law professor at the University of Minnesota. “All it says is we've got to provide the same opportunity.”

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The law also requires stations not charge political candidates more than they charge any other advertiser for similar timeslots, which have different rates depending on expected viewership and to what extent the station can preempt the ad for other content.

“So whatever my cheapest rate would be at eight o'clock, that's what I offer… all [candidates],” said Schultz. “Whatever my cheapest rate would be at two in the morning, I offer them all.”

Another key limitation of the law is that it only applies to broadcast stations and networks, meaning cable television channels and internet publishers do not have to abide by these rules.

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