Constitution Daily

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Can Stephen Colbert discuss his sister’s election race on TV?

March 20, 2013 by Scott Bomboy


It’s not unusual for a celebrity to run for political office, but what happens when a celeb’s relative runs for Congress—and her brother has a popular TV show? We’ll find out shortly as Stephen Colbert’s sister runs as the Democratic nominee for a House seat.


Colbert At Sanity RallyDemocratic House candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch won her primary on Tuesday in South Carolina and will take on the winner of a runoff election featuring Mark Sanford, the state’s former governor.


That is enough fodder in itself for talk-show comedians.


One immediate question is about Colbert’s show on cable, The Colbert Report, and if Stephen Colbert faces any hurdles with the Federal Communications Commission about discussing his sister’s candidacy on TV, or having her on his show.


He mentioned the election already on his show in February.


“Holy cow! My sister is running for Congress!” Colbert said. “No free airtime, Lulu! As a broadcast journalist I am obligated to maintain pure objectivity. It doesn’t matter that my sister is intelligent, hardworking, compassionate, and dedicated to the people of South Carolina. I will not be mentioning any of that on my show.’’


The FCC’s equal time rule is part of the Communications Act. it requires that broadcasters give equal time to political candidates on television, if they request that time, under restricted circumstances.


Section 315 of the statute also applies to cable TV “systems” that originate their own programming, or more technically, “Programming (exclusive of broadcast signals) carried on a cable television system over one or more channels and subject to the exclusive control of the cable operator.”


The law also says, “If any system shall permit any such candidate to use its facilities, it shall afford equal opportunities to all other candidates for that office to use such facilities.”


But there are four exceptions to that rule: bona fide newscasts; bona fide news documentaries; on-the-spot coverage of bona fide news events; and bona fide news interviews.


This isn’t a new issue about Colbert. The Broadcast Law Blog discussed Colbert at length back in 2007, when he threatened to run for president, but only in the state of South Carolina.


In a series of blog posts, David Oxenford explained how the definition of a “news interview” show has legally expanded to include programming like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show.


Guests such as politicians can appear on these types of shows, and as long as the show controls the interview topics, and doesn’t constantly promote one candidate, the FCC won’t get involved.


The definition doesn’t apply to scripted programming, which explains why reruns of Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies weren’t shown in California when the two actors ran for governor, or why Love Boat wasn’t on TV in Iowa when Fred Grandy ran for Congress.


But in the case of Colbert, it’s not him running for office, and his sister doesn’t work for the show.


Another issue is that Comedy Central, which shows The Colbert Report, might not fit the definition of a cable TV system, as the law reads.


The best-case (or maybe the worst-case) scenario for a candidate opposing Elizabeth Colbert Busch is that he or she can request equal time on The Colbert Report with seven days’ notice.


For example, if Sanford does the runoff election in South Carolina for its Republican House nomination, he can go on The Colbert Report, which could be interesting, given Sanford’s controversial departure as governor.


Or if The Colbert Report constantly interviews Sanford, would Colbert’s sister ask for equal time?


Colbert hasn’t said much about the election so far, but he has campaigned for her in South Carolina as himself, and not as his TV character.


“I’m not worried about what it would do to me or my show to try to help her as myself—not as my character, to help her as myself. And you know, if people think that’s not the right thing for me to do, I don’t care. It’s my sister, and I’m willing to help her,” he told CNN on Tuesday.


Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.


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