Hillary ‘SNL’ Appearance May Trigger ‘Equal Time’ Law

An FCC rule from a bygone era may get Bernie Sanders and company some time on NBC.


Jacob Gershman reports for WSJ’s LawBlog (“Clinton ‘SNL’ Cameo Could Entitle Challengers to Free Air Time“):

Hillary Clinton’s appearance on “Saturday Night Live” last weekend could trigger the so-called equal-time rule, the federal law that allows qualified opposing candidates to demand comparable air time.

The Democratic presidential contender had a three-minute cameo in the ”SNL” season opener, playing a bartender named Val who comforts a distraught, pretend Hillary sitting at the bar. During her three-minute on air, the former secretary of state poked fun at her delayed support for gay marriage, did a Donald Trump impression and sang before a sympathetic, cheering live audience.

The morning after the show aired, NBC’s head of affiliate relations, Jean Dietze, wrote to affiliate general managers about the sketch, instructing them to file an official notice with the FCC and to alert the network if they receive a demand for equal time from another presidential candidate. Here’s a copy of the notice later filed by WNBC in New York.

The federal equal-time rule applies when a broadcast station gives air time to a candidate for office and the appearance doesn’t fall into one of several exempt categories: a newscast, interview, documentary or a live news event like a political convention. A comedy sketch show like “SNL” doesn’t obviously fall into any one of those groups.

The FCC has never released an official opinion on whether the law applies to shows like “SNL,” but NBC has assumed it does. An NBC spokeswoman told Law Blog that the network regularly sends out such alerts to affiliates when a political candidate shows up on “SNL”,  but said until recently the correspondence wasn’t available online. In 2012 the FCC started requiring affiliate “political files,” which contain the notices, to be posted on the Internet.

The FCC rule lets qualified candidates get comparable air time on the same network in the same time slot. There’s no right to appear on the same show, so candidates couldn’t demand an “SNL” cameo of their own. Cable networks aren’t subject to the rule.

The rule strikes me as simultaneously antiquated and inadequate.

It’s not 1974. A mere seven percent of Americans rely on over-the-air signals for their television viewing. I’ve long since been at the point where I’m scarcely aware of what network shows air on, since I watch everything but live sports via my DVR or via streaming from Netflix or Amazon. The distinction between “broadcast” and cable and satellite has long been obsolete.

To be sure, the four broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox) dominate the ratings. Of the top-rated shows for the 2014-15 season, every single one of the top 89 shows were one one of those networks. All of the top 190 were on one of the Big Four or CW. (I’m incredibly atypical in that regard, in that the vast majority of the shows that I record or stream originate from a niche network on either basic or premium cable.) But the requirement for equal time on the broadcast networks isn’t a function of their dominance of the marketplace but rather a requirement imposed because broadcast signals must necessarily be regulated.

At the same time, to the extent it remains a good idea to require equal time for other candidates once one is featured on a program, the venue and time slot certainly matter. ‘SNL’ in particular is a prestige venue and Clinton was featured in the opening sketch, the most coveted segment. To give Bernie Sanders or Jim Webb “equal time” when no one is watching is hardly in the spirit of the rule.


FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Media, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Stonetools says:

    The FCC rule that they should enforce and should bring back is the “fairness doctrine”. Nobody cares about this rule, but we actually have seen the damage caused by abandonment of the ” fairness doctrine. ”
    As to this rule, I imagine other candidates will get their turn on SNL. I expect a Donald Trump cameo before too long.

  2. Scott says:

    This may all be Kabuki. I’m sure the SNL would be thrilled to have all the candidates to demand to be on its show.

  3. C. Clavin says:

    Be careful of what you wish for.
    Trump might not fair so well on SNL.
    Republican Diva, Sarah Palin, didn’t benefit from her appearance.

  4. Facebones says:

    @Scott: Absolutely. I’m sure SNL would be salivating at the thought of Trump doing a cameo. And it’s not like Republicans have never been on SNL. (Palin, Dole, W have all made cameos.) And McCain and Forbes were even actual guest hosts.

  5. bill says:

    people who watch alleged “comedy” shows for their political inspiration are not usually the brightest lights on any sign- too bad there’s so many of them.
    that networks are allowed to shill for their favs is pretty weak- but then again, so are those who pay attention to them.
    @Facebones: trump would be great, he knows how to play into whatever they’ll throw at him.

  6. JWH says:

    @Stonetools: No, no, no, no, no. A thousand times no.

  7. An Interested Party says:

    people who watch alleged “comedy” shows for their political inspiration are not usually the brightest lights on any sign- too bad there’s so many of them.

    But enough about Fox News…

  8. steve s says:


  9. Liberal Capitalist says:


    The FCC rule that they should enforce and should bring back is the “fairness doctrine”.

    I could not possibly agree more !

    I remember those snippets of commentary that were presented on television, allowing the “opposing view” to get their time.

    On the one hand, it kept the hyperbole down, knowing that if you crossed the line, one would be called out on it.

    On the other hand, it gave time to the loons, and you could get a chance to absolutely learn that the loon was certifiable. But still, score one for free speech and an informed populace.

    So, who would HATE the return of the fairness doctrine? Murdock and Fox News.

    Fox execs have stated that they present news and opinion, and it’s mostly opinion (being presented as fact).

    If the fairness doctrine was returned, Fox News would have to completely change their format.

    Count me in!

    (… and I don’t have to write it all in caps! :o) )

  10. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    Hmmmmm… allow myself to be turned into a caricature for the purpose of letting people laugh at me. Ehh, maybe not; depends on what I stand for (and how popular I am).

  11. ernieyeball says:

    It’s not 1974.

    Too bad. I have a vision of a bumbling Chevy Chase choking on his hamburger and spilling his beer as he struggles to get away from his table when Gilda Radner and Rand Paul approach John Belushi (as Iowa Rep. Steve King) and declare “I am a Dreamer!”
    (Yes. I know SNL premiered in 1975. But this is my vision.)

  12. Absurdist says:

    With Trump scheduled to host SNL on 7 November, I anticipate that the floodgates will open momentarily.