What is the law regarding televised political advertisements?
Broadcasters are governed by rules set forth by the Federal Communications Commission. FCC rules are generally designed to ensure candidates receive equal treatment both in terms of advertising and political news coverage.
Special rules apply to campaign ads
Special rules apply to ads bought by “legally qualified” candidates for public office in the 45 days before a primary election and 60 days before a general election.
In most cases, candidates must be charged the station's “most favorable” – meaning least expensive – rate during that period.
Stations must also provide "reasonable access" to all candidates for federal office, and, when it comes to advertising sales, must treat all candidates running for the same office alike.
Other political ads are more expensive
Many ads seen as “political” are not aired by candidates or their campaigns. For example, issue ads don’t contain certain phrases such as “vote for” or “oppose.” Other ads aired by independent political groups do directly attack or support candidates. Television stations do not have to give these ads any preferential rates, so generally they are more expensive than those bought by candidates and campaigns.
Laws have changed since 2008
The biggest changes since the 2008 election have been brought about by court decisions.
One decision, Citizens United, gives corporations and unions the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns. Another decision created so-called Super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts on behalf of candidates. Taken together, those decisions mean more players will be putting more money toward political causes than ever before.