Equal-Time and the Kennedy-Nixon Debates
The 1960 Presidential Debates were revolutionary and reached a massive audience through the medium of television. Never before had candidates debated in front of a national television audience. It was reported that nearly 100 million Americans tuned into one or more of these debates.1 They were a huge success and seemed to mesmoirze millions of citizens. However, many people do not understand how difficult these debates were to organize. Not only did both campaigns have to take part in several rounds of negotations, the television networks also had to lobby Congress to waive the Equal Time Rule, which effectively banned third-party candidates from participating in the debates. This effecively became a precedent and third-party candidates would be excluded from future presidential debates.
About the Equal-Time Rule
In 1934, the Federal Communications Act became law and closely regulated emerging communication technologies. The Equal Time Rule was a part of this law and section 315 declares: If any licensee shall permit any person who is a legally qualified candidate for any public office to use a broadcasting station, he shall afford equal opportunities to all other such candidates for that office in the use of such broadcasting station: Provided, That such licensee shall have no power of censorship over the material broadcast under the provisions of this section. No obligation is imposed under this subsection upon any licensee to allow the use of its station by any such candidate. Appearance by a legally qualified candidate on any—(1) bona fide newscast, (2) bona fide news interview, (3) bona fide news documentary (if the appearance of the candidate is incidental to the presentation of the subject or subjects covered by the news documentary), or (4) on-the-spot coverage of bona fide news events (including but not limited to political conventions and activities incidental thereto).2 The original intent of this law was to ensure fairness in the political arena and a voice for every citizen of this country. In the 1960 Presidential Debates, at the request of the networks, Congress waived this provision and barred a third-party presence on the debate stage. The television networks responded by providing nearly 39 hours of free time and the FCC reported that it had "great benefits."3 Unfortunately, these great benefits solely helped the Democratic and Republican Parties agenda.
Effect on Third-Party Candidates
The Congressional suspension of Section 315 of the Federal Communications Act greatly effected the role that third-party candidates would play in future debates. To their dismay, they would be barred from almost every future presidential debate. Essentially, when Congress suspended the Equal-Time Rule in 1960, there was bi-partisan support. Many people believe this was a precedent set by the Kennedy-Nixon Debates, as these types of "minor" candidates rarely participated with the two major parties. This would eventually become a precedent and became further institutionalized with the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Recent History of the "Equal-Time Rule"
NBC recently granted two presidential candidates for the Republican Nomination in 2016 "equal-time." This followed Donald Trump's appearance on Saturday Night Live. According to Section 315 of the Federal Communications Act of 1934, candidates have seven days to make a request for equal-time.4 Many people also thought that Hillary's appearance on Saturday Night Live would invoke the infamous rule. Recipients of equal-time were Governor George Pataki and Senator Lindsey Graham. It should also be noted that NBC chose to grant equal-time, the FCC did not enforce this provision.
(1) Mickelson, Sig. 1972. The electric mirror: Politics in an age of television. New York: Docld, Mead & Company.
(2) 47 U.S. Code § 315 - Candidates for public office. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/47/315
(3) THE EQUAL-TIME RULE SUPPRESSES POLITICAL DEBATE. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1987/05/21/the-equal-time-rule-suppresses-political-debate/35e579b1-aedf-4a66-92f6-21c82adcc255/
(4) PolitiFact sheet: Does Donald Trump's 'SNL' appearance trigger equal time for the Republican field? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/article/2015/oct/21/does-donald-trumps-snl-appearance-trigger-equal-ti/