FCC Upholds Tonight Show News Exemption

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The FCC has denied a request from the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides for airtime on 11 California TV stations.

The campaign had asserted that an appearance by Republican incumbent Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on NBC's Tonight Show did not qualify for the bona fide news exemption from FCC rules.

Those rules state that a TV station that allows "a legally qualified candidate for public office to use a broadcast station," must then "afford equal opportunities to other such candidates for that office to use its facilities."

The Angelides campaign had asked for exactly 15 minutes and 41 second of airtime after Schwarzenegger appeared for that space of time on Oct. 11, 2006. The campaign asserted that the segment did not qualify under the news interview exemption because NBC executives were on the record classifying the show as an entertainment show. The campaign also said that Leno was trying to help out his friend in the campaign and that the governor was not otherwise newsworthy.

NBC had countered that the show interviews many newsworthy politicians, including former California Governor Gray Davis and Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain, and pointed to a Pew Research study that concluded late night talk shows, including Tonight, "were increasingly important sources of political news, particularly for younger viewers."

In rejecting the request for airtime, the FCC pointed out that in 1984 it had liberalized the exemption for news and news interviews beyond traditional Face the Nation/Meet the Press public affairs shows to include more nontraditional outlets like syndicated talk shows--Donahue was the test case--and Entertainment Tonight.

The FCC said it did not have to find that all of the Tonight show qualified for the exemption to find that the Schwarzenegger interview did. "The fact that many interviews on the program concern entertainment is irrelevant," the FCC said. It also dismissed the charge that Leno was attempting to promote Schwarzenegger's campaign, saying the campaign did not provide evidence beyond speculation of the motive. "We note that, in the segment at issue here, the interview addressed topics that included the Governor of California’s views on immigration reform, bipartisan legislative activities in California, and the war in Iraq," said the commission. "Based on the record before us, we cannot say that the producers judgment that the news interview segments of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno fit within the news interview exemption was unreasonable."

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