There’s just one word for President-elect Donald J. Trump’s tweet demanding “equal time” on NBC’s comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live:
So says Bob Corn-Revere, former chief counsel to Federal Communications Commission Chief James H. Quello and attorney at Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington D.C.
And: “No … way.”
Trump tweeted “Equal time for us?” at 6:26 a.m. Sunday after complaining about the “biased” and “one-sided” Nov. 19 episode of SNL featuring a satirical sketch of Trump.
I watched parts of @nbcsnl Saturday Night Live last night. It is a totally one-sided, biased show – nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 20, 2016
There are so many problems with Trump’s equal time demand, it is hard to know where to begin. For starters, the SNL episode featured actor Alec Baldwin portraying Trump as a panicky new president-elect. Actor Beck Bennett played Vice President-elect Mike Pence. The actors are not actually candidates for public office. They just play them on TV.
“Sketch comedy where a candidate does not actually appear has nothing to do with the FCC’s equal opportunity rules,” say Corn-Revere.
So there’s that.
Problem Two: No Democratic candidates appeared on the Nov. 19 SNL episode. Trump cannot claim any right to “equal time” to rebut Democrats – because no Dems were on the show.
Problem Three: The FCC’s equal time rule only applies to “legally qualified candidates” for office. The election was on Nov. 8. The campaign is over. In short, there is absolutely no basis for Trump to demand equal time on NBC because actors, not candidates, appeared on the show, no Democrats appeared, and the campaign is over.
Trump might be thinking of NBC’s decision earlier this month to grant equal time to four GOP presidential candidates after Trump guest-hosted on SNL on Nov. 7. That was a totally different situation.
GOP presidential candidates John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Jim Gilmore, and Lindsey Graham were able to demand equal time because Trump was a legally qualified candidate when he guest-hosted SNL. NBC allowed the four candidates to broadcast free campaign messages for 12 minutes – the same amount of time Trump appeared on SNL – on affiliate stations in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina over Thanksgiving weekend.
“Equal time” is a bit of a “misnomer,” Corn-Revere says. He prefers to call it the “equal opportunity rule.” The rule, therefore, did not give the four GOP candidates the right to request “equal time” to guest-host on SNL. The candidates simply won the right to air their ads for free, including during a re-run of an SNL episode.
News shows are exempt from the equal time rule. The equal time rule does not apply to these TV and radio news programs:
- regularly scheduled newscasts
- news interview shows
- documentaries, or
- on-the-spot news events
The “news interview” exemption applies even if the underlying show is comedy or entertainment. For example, Corn-Revere said, Entertainment Tonight and the Howard Stern Show are not covered by the equal time rule when those shows conduct bonafide interviews asking “news” questions of a legally qualified candidate for public office.
Are cable network shows covered by the FCC equal time rule? “It’s an interesting, open question,” Corn-Revere says. The answer is probably no, because cable networks are not part of the limited broadcast spectrum, as broadcast networks are. “It’s doubtful that the FCC could enforce equal opportunity rules against cable networks,” he says.
Disclosure: Susan Seager worked in the LA office of Davis Wright Tremaine. Bob Corn-Revere, her source, works in the DC office of my former firm.
[image via screenshot via SNL]