ABC seeks FCC waiver on equal-time regs

Third-party candidates get short shrift

The Alphabet web will challenge the FCC ruling requiring equal time for political candidates in order to air biographies of Bush and Gore.

ABC said Tuesday it will seek a waiver that will prevent Reform Party contender Pat Buchanan, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and other third-party candidates from demanding an hour of airtime. Under federal law, when a broadcast television station allows one political candidate to appear outside the context of a news program, the station must provide “equal opportunities” to all other candidates.

ABC News was planning to air two one-hour analytical/biographical specials on the two key candidates following Labor Day.

Since the early 1980s, opponents of the law have said that its original rationale — that broadcasters should be required to perform certain functions in the public interest since there were a limited number of frequencies — is no longer valid in this media-saturated age of 24-hour cable news networks and Webcasting. “It’s a very different world,” said ABC News prexy David Westin.

ABC News is preparing a submission to the FCC seeking a ruling on this type of program to see if it falls under the current exemptions. Sources say ABC News is prepared to take the case to court if need be.

“The law is indefensible in this day and age,” Westin said. “It was invented for a world with three networks.”

The problem, said Westin, is that according to the federal statute regarding equal time, “if we do a produced biography on one of the candidates, other candidates could claim one hour of our primetime air to do whatever they like … It could get very interesting.”

Exemption likely

Industry sources say it’s likely that ABC News will get the exemption it seeks. On Tuesday, the FCC ruled a series of presidential candidate profiles that A&E plans to air on its “Biography” series exempt from the equal opportunities requirements. Since A&E (which is partially owned by Disney/ABC) is a cable network, the ruling would not necessarily apply to ABC, but it is a sign that the FCC is willing to adapt to the changing times.

While he said he was not familiar with ABC’s specific situation, Bobby Baker, chief of the FCC’s office of political programming, said the principles seem to be the same as in the A&E case. “There have been a lot of signals from the commission that we want to be flexible,” said Baker. “We’re not as much an anachronism as we’re made out to be.”

Unconventional

Meanwhile, ABC News said it would skip coverage of the first night of the Democratic and Republican national conventions except for a half-time report during the preseason professional football games.

In recent days, network news divisions have come under fire for their dwindling election coverage. In the 1980s, the nets aired 10-20 hours of each convention, while in 1996, they each offered only 60-90 minutes of primetime-coverage each night.

Simultaneously, cable news nets have taken up the slack. Last week, CNN announced plans to air more than nine hours a day of convention programming.

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