When Donald Trump hosts “Saturday Night Live” on Nov. 7, rival campaigns may very well be watching not only what he says but how long he spends in the spotlight.
That’s because of the so-called equal time rule, an often misunderstood FCC regulation that requires that a station that gives free airtime to one candidate offer the same opportunity for exposure to rival qualified candidates.
The rule has loomed over election campaigns enough for stations to forgo airing Arnold Schwarzenegger movies as he ran for governor of California in 2003 or, even more famously, “Bedtime for Bonzo” when Ronald Reagan waged his presidential bid in 1980.
When Hillary Clinton appeared on “Saturday Night Live” on Oct. 3, NBC’s Jean Dietze, executive vice president of affiliate relations, sent a notice to station general managers letting them know that her appearance clocked in at 3 minutes and 12 seconds and asking them to let affiliate relations “know promptly if your station receives a demand for equal time from any of the other candidates.” Apparently none did.
But the Trump appearance may be a whole different story. He’s hosting “Saturday Night Live,” not making a cameo appearance.
“Unlike Hillary making a very short one-sketch appearance, this candidate is going to be hosting and on throughout the program. To me that has kind of crossed the Maginot Line in terms of triggering” the equal time rule, said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center.
She adds, “The amount of time he will be on screen will be substantively different than a cameo. And given the dynamics of the race, where they are trying to humanize him and show that he is not just a bloviator, it is incredibly politically valuable to him.”
An NBC spokeswoman did not return requests for comment.
Yet just because Trump appears, even in extended form, doesn’t mean that “SNL” will have to extend an invite to all the other GOP candidates to host.
There are intricacies to the equal time rule, officially known as the “equal opportunities” rule.
For one thing, it is not the same as the fairness doctrine. That was a policy that stations present controversial topics with balanced points of view. The doctrine was abolished in 1987 and officially taken off the FCC’s books in 2011.
What’s more, the FCC does not police the airwaves. A rival campaign has to request equal time. And candidates who seek it have to show that they have a legitimate campaign in the state of an affiliate where a request is made. (Requests for equal time have to be made to the local station, not the network).
They also have seven days after a notice is posted of a candidate’s appearance to make an equal-time request.
Even then, NBC’s affiliates could seek an exemption. The equal-time rules make exceptions for newscasts, news interviews, documentaries and current events — and the FCC in recent years has given some leeway to late-night talk shows in this regard.
When California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” during his re-election campaign in 2006, his Democratic challenger, Phil Angelides, asked for equal time, but was rebuffed. The reasoning was that such shows presented a bonafide news interview, even if the news was often presented in the form of satire.
“Saturday Night Live” is not an interview show, but a sketch comedy show that frequently skewers current events, so the bar may be a tad higher for it to earn the exemption.
NBC appears to be banking that ratings for Trump’s appearance will make the risk of equal time requests worth it, if they happen at all. Making a request also risks a rival campaign coming across as a bit desperate.
But this presidential election is hardly routine. More than any other candidate in recent memory, Trump is reaping the benefits of free media. Even if he will have to be the butt of jokes on “Saturday Night Live,” he’ll still have the spotlight.
Update: Spoke too soon. Larry Lessig, the Harvard professor waging a longshot bid for the Democratic nomination, submitted an equal time request to NBC this week.