Guidelines for TV and radio broadcasters and TV service providers during an election
Table of contents
During an election, broadcasters play an important role in informing Canadians about the issues, political parties and candidates involved. Broadcasters serve the Canadian public by ensuring that citizens can make informed choices on election day.
The following guidelines are intended to assist television and radio broadcasters, as well as TV service providers, during an election period.
Station managers should share these guidelines with news, program, sales and traffic departments as well as with any other affected personnel when an election is called.
Relevant policy objectives of the Broadcasting Act
During an election period, broadcasters and TV service providers are guided by the following policy objectives set out in the Broadcasting Act (the Act).
The Act states that the programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system should, among other objectives:
- be varied and comprehensive, providing a balance of information, enlightenment and entertainment for men, women and children of all ages, interests and tastes [section 3(1)(i)(i)];
- provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern [section 3(1)(i)(iv)].
Allocation of time for political broadcasts
Broadcasters must allocate time on an equitable basis for political broadcasts.
This requirement can be found in section 6 of the Radio Regulations, 1986 and section 8 of the Television Broadcasting Regulations, 1987:
During an election period, a licensee shall allocate time for the broadcasting of programs, advertisements or announcements of a partisan political character on an equitable basis to all accredited political parties and rival candidates represented in the election or referendum.
A similar requirement can be found in section 6(1) of the Discretionary Services Regulations:
If, during an election period, a licensee provides time on its programming service for the broadcast of programs, advertisements or announcements of a partisan political character, the licensee shall allocate the time on an equitable basis to all accredited political parties and rival candidates represented in the election or referendum.
The requirement for community channels is set out in section 30(5) of the Broadcasting Distribution Regulations:
If a licensee provides time on the community channel in a licensed area during an election period for the distribution of programming of a partisan political character, the licensee shall allocate that time on an equitable basis to all accredited political parties and rival candidates.
Definition of election period
“Election period” is defined in the Radio Regulations, 1986 and the Television Broadcasting Regulations, 1987 as:
- in the case of a federal or provincial election or of a federal, provincial or municipal referendum, the period beginning on the date of the announcement of the election or referendum and ending on the date the election or referendum is held, or
- in the case of a municipal election, the period beginning two months before the date of the election and ending on the date the election is held.
The definition of “election period” in the Discretionary Services Regulations and Broadcasting Distribution Regulations is substantially the same as the definition above.
(Excerpts from Public Notice 1988-142)
Throughout the history of broadcasting in Canada, licensees, as part of their service to the public, have been required to cover elections. Moreover, where licensees have allocated paid or free campaign time, they have been required to do so in a manner that is equitable to all political parties and rival candidates.
The purpose of these requirements is to ensure the public’s right to be informed of the issues involved so that it has sufficient knowledge to make an informed choice from among the various parties and candidates. This right is a quintessential one for the effective functioning of a democracy, particularly at election time. The broadcaster’s obligation as a trustee of the public airwaves is seldom greater than it is in respect to this exercise of the most fundamental democratic freedom.
As the Commission noted in Political Broadcasting – Complaints re: free time and editorial time allocations, Circular No. 334, 4 June 1987:
It is the broadcaster’s duty to ensure that the public has adequate knowledge of the issues surrounding an election and the position of the parties and candidates. The broadcaster does not enjoy the position of a benevolent censor who is able to give the public only what it “should” know. Nor is it the broadcaster’s role to decide in advance which candidates are “worthy” of broadcast time.
From this right on the part of the public to have adequate knowledge to fulfil its obligations as an informed electorate, flows the obligation on the part of the broadcaster to provide equitable—fair and just—treatment of issues, candidates and parties. It should be noted that “equitable” does not necessarily mean “equal,” but, generally, all candidates and parties are entitled to some coverage that will give them the opportunity to expose their ideas to the public.
The question of equitable treatment applies to parties and to candidates; to programs, advertisements and announcements; to federal, provincial and municipal elections, as well as to referenda. Equity also applies to the duration of broadcasts, to scheduling, to potential audience, to the choice of which electoral districts and offices to cover, to language of broadcast, to issue coverage and approach, to conditions under which an appearance may be made, and—in the case of paid-time programming—to price.
The Commission acknowledges that each licensee’s situation is unique. The Commission has no firm rules to cover all aspects of election campaign broadcasting; to some extent it will have to deal with situations on a case-by-case basis.
Political campaign broadcasts generally fall into four categories:
- Paid time – Time bought and paid for by or on behalf of parties or candidates or advocacy groups, and largely under the editorial control of the advertiser.
- Free time – Time given free of charge by the licensee to the party or candidate, and largely under the editorial control of the party or candidate.
- News – Coverage of the campaign by the licensee’s news department, and under the editorial control of the licensee.
- Public Affairs – In-depth examinations of candidates and issues, profiles of candidates, debates, and under the editorial control of the licensee.
Equity requirements apply within each of the categories of paid time, free time, news and public affairs programs.
There may be some “blurring” of the latter two categories given that, for example, they may be part of the station’s “news package” and may involve the same station personnel.
If one party or candidate receives free time, all rival parties and candidates must be offered equitable time.
Similarly, if paid advertising time is sold to any party or candidate, advertising time must be made available on an equitable basis to rival parties and candidates.
In the case of conflicts between requirements for equity with respect to paid advertising time and sold-out commercial schedules, it is the Commission’s view that such conflicts should be resolved in favour of the electoral process and in accordance with the principle of equity.
Equity in news coverage and public affairs programming
News coverage should generally be left to the editorial judgement of the broadcaster.
However, section 3 of the Act requires that “the programming originated by broadcast undertakings should be of high standard” and that “the programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system should provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern.” Licensees have an obligation under this section to ensure that their audiences are informed of the main issues and of the positions of all candidates and registered parties on those issues.
Section 3 of the Act must also be applied when presenting public affairs programs, such as party or candidate profiles, features on certain issues or panel discussions.
Broadcasts in multiple languages
Licensees who broadcast in more than one language should take into consideration that a political broadcast in one language cannot be construed as balancing a political broadcast in another language.
When the equitable time requirement is triggered
The equitable time requirement is triggered at the later of (a) the date a candidate is nominated or (b) the date on which an election is called.
Not all candidates are nominated at the same time; some, for strategic or other reasons, may not be nominated until well into a campaign. There is no obligation on the part of licensees to compensate late entrants for time previously afforded other candidates following the election’s call. Late-entry candidates should receive equitable coverage from the time they enter the campaign.
Equitable coverage to all candidates
For some licensees, the provision of equitable coverage to all candidates running for office in all electoral districts reached by the station could amount to an unwieldy proposition.
The decision should be made by the licensee, in consideration of three principal factors: the station’s service area (i.e., the area it is licensed or committed to serve), its signal coverage area, and the practical aspect based on the number of electoral districts and candidates.
On-air personalities who become electoral candidates
On-air personalities who become electoral candidates, whether they are employed on radio, television or community channels, even if their exposure is solely in the role of commercial announcer, have an unfair advantage over their opponents.
These candidates should be removed from their on-air duties during the election period or on the date their candidacies are announced, whichever is later. Offering a similar on-air opportunity to an on-air candidate’s opponents is no longer an option.
Debate programs do not have to feature all rival parties or candidates in one or more programs (see Election-period broadcasting: Debates, Public Notice CRTC 1995-44, 15 March 1995). However, to satisfy the balance requirement, broadcasters must take reasonable steps to ensure that their audiences are informed on the main issues, and of the positions of all candidates and registered parties on those issues, through their public affairs programs generally.
Balance is generally assessed in light of the overall programming during the entire election period. However, if a particular program dealing with election issues is broadcast very close to or on the eve of the day of the election, it should be internally balanced, given the lack of time to balance the overall content on election issues.Footnote 1
Logging advertising content
Television, radio and discretionary service licensees must log as advertising material any paid program, advertisement or announcement of a partisan political character which, including the partisan identification of the sponsor and the party, if any, is two minutes or less in duration.
Any advertising material of a partisan political character with regard to the election, regardless of length, may be logged as program material by licensees who are not prohibited from carrying advertising material by regulation or condition of licence.
Television licensees should log advertising material of a partisan political character as “COM.” However, to distinguish election advertising material from other television commercials, licensees should insert “ELE” at the beginning or end of the field that is used to identify the advertiser or the title of the advertisement.
There are blackout and political message identification provisions in the Canada Elections Act that stipulate that election advertising in relation to federal elections is not permitted on polling day, and that election advertising by a candidate or a registered party must indicate that the message was authorized by the official agent of the candidate or by the registered agent of the party. The Broadcasting Arbitrator issues guidelines concerning the obligations of broadcasters during a general election. These guidelines can be found on the Elections Canada website.
The blackout period for partisan political programs, including election campaign advertising, was removed from the Act in 1991. However, applicable electoral laws may vary from one province or territory to another with respect to campaign advertising or other matters. Licensees should seek appropriate advice relating to matters of provincial or territorial jurisdiction.
Community channels are not required to broadcast political programming. If they choose to broadcast political programming, they should follow the guidelines below in regards to:
- free access political programming; and
- political programming under the editorial control of the licensee.
Free access political programming
The licensee makes time available to candidates or parties to use freely and without intervention. The licensee is not involved as a moderator or in the production process.
The programming must respect the laws governing libel and slander as well as the broadcasting guidelines regarding equitable treatment. While the licensee is ultimately responsible for the program content, the candidate or party is afforded the widest possible latitude and control.
Political programming under the editorial control of the licensee
The licensee retains control of the format and participants. It may directly intervene as a moderator or in the production process.
These programs can be likened to public affairs programs. Such programming must be done on an equitable basis for all political parties and rival candidates, and must conform to the Commission’s regulations and policies regarding community programming.
The operation of a temporary network is subject to the Act. Broadcasters must submit a request to the Commission and receive approval before operating such a network.
- Election-period broadcasting: Debates, Public Notice CRTC 1995-44, 15 March 1995
- A Policy with Respect to Election Campaign Broadcasting, Public Notice CRTC 1988-142, 2 September 1988
- Political Broadcasting – Complaints re: free time and editorial time allocations, Circular No. 334, 4 June 1987
- Date modified: