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While political candidates must be legally offered lower TV ad rates, third parties like political action committees often pay higher market-based prices for the same time slots. 

Under Federal Communications Commission rules, broadcast stations cannot charge candidates more than their “lowest unit,” or the amount that their “best commercial customer” has paid for ads of the same class, length and time of day. These rules only apply within the 45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election. 

Resulting from a small provision in the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act, the rules aim to ensure candidates are not disadvantaged by “unfairly high advertising rates during the ends of a campaign or rates that differ from their opponents.” Today, the 50-year-old law means that third parties can pay up to two or three times more for ads than candidates.

This Fact Brief is responsive to conversations such as this one.


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Erin Gretzinger / Wisconsin WatchReporting Intern

Erin Gretzinger joined Wisconsin Watch as a reporting intern in May 2022. She is a journalism and French major at UW-Madison and will graduate in spring 2023. Erin previously worked for the Wisconsin State Journal as a reporting intern and served as the 2021-22 editor-in-chief at The Badger Herald. She is a recipient of the Jon Wolman Scholarship, the Sigrid Schultz Scholarship and the Joseph Sicherman Award Fund for her academic and reporting work.