John Oliver said in his last Sunday show (12th February) that he paid several TV channels to broadcast an advertisement obviously making fun of Mr Trump (around 21:40, toward the end of the video). The message is to be sent as a commercial advertisement. One of the channels concerned was Fox News, which he picked so that Mr Trump was likely to see it. However, I am not sure that this kind of message would be approved by the staff of Fox News.

Has this kind of thing been done before?

On what legal basis (if any) could Fox News refuse to broadcast the advertisement?

I would be interested in an example of a similar action, using commercial advertising to send a political message on a channel known to be opposed to this particular message. I cannot think of one. There is mandatory equal time granted for each candidate in some countries during the presidential campaign, but it isn't really the same thing.

Edit : Can someone show if the ad was actually aired, and if so on which channel?

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    I am not located in the US, so I cannot access the channels in question. Could someone please tell me whether the ad was actually aired or not and if so on which shows ? Thanks in advance. Feb 13, 2017 at 15:01
  • Completely outside the realm of law...there's likely little reason for a TV station to refuse any ads. It's money. It's pretty much the entirety of their business model: sell ads. :)
    – user1530
    Feb 13, 2017 at 16:16
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    @blip TV stations do sometimes refuse ads that they think a significant percentage of their viewers may find objectionable. In order to continuing making ad revenue in the future, they have to continue having good viewership levels.
    – reirab
    Feb 13, 2017 at 20:13
  • @reirab while I don't doubt that, It's likely an extreme exception to the norm. There are a lot of crazy ads out there.
    – user1530
    Feb 13, 2017 at 23:46
  • I would think that it's the broadcaster offering advertising space, and the advertisee is making the "offer" to buy/rent said space. Which means that (other than exceptions like government messages & protected ads), the broadcaster can 'refuse' to sell the spot to the advertisee.
    – Robotnik
    Feb 14, 2017 at 0:04

4 Answers 4


Some ads are protected but John Oliver's isn't

In the US there is a federal law that requires TV stations and other mass media networks to give equal opportunity to all candidates running for an office. If the station airs an ad for one candidate it must give all other candidates running for the same office an opportunity to advertise.

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

However the station could refuse to air all campaign ads for an office.

No obligation is imposed under this subsection upon any licensee to allow the use of its station by any such candidate.

The station cannot refuse a protected ad based on content.

such licensee shall have no power of censorship over the material broadcast under the provisions of this section.

The law only covers ads from candidates though, it doesn't cover ads from third parties or Super PACs so John Oliver's ad wouldn't be protected by it.

Many ads are created by Super PACs and wouldn't be covered by the law. NPR points out that in practice TV stations rarely refuse ads even if they're known to be false.

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    I'm not understanding how that law has anything at all to do with this. This is not a campaign ad, it's a political dig, essentially an editorial camouflaged as a commercial. If Fox doesn't want to accept the money for the paid advertisement, it's their prerogative.
    – CGCampbell
    Feb 13, 2017 at 18:45
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    Are cable networks considered broadcasters for the purposes of this statute?
    – user12344
    Feb 13, 2017 at 19:04
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    @C8H10N4O2 Yes cable networks are included. The law defines "(1) the term “broadcasting station” includes a community antenna television system;" Community antenna television is the technical term for cable.
    – JonK
    Feb 13, 2017 at 19:17
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    @CGCampbell I'm not sure I see your point. The answer says that there are laws governing political campaign ads and that this isn't a campaign ad so it's not covered by those laws so, implicitly, stations can do whatever they want. Feb 14, 2017 at 13:09

In response to the last part of your question: yes the advertising was aired. According to this LA Times article, "…the ads appeared Monday morning on FOX (at 8:48 a.m. EST), MNSBC (8:29 a.m.) and CNN (8:50 a.m.)."


It seems, then, that the answer to your question is this:

Yes, networks can refuse John Oliver's ad, but rarely would any network turn down paying customers on an editorial basis, largely because of the traditionally "walled-off" nature of the structure of traditional news organizations. In other words, this would constitute a permeation of the traditional "wall" between the business and editorial sides of a legacy news organization. Based on this traditional journalistic norm, ad revenue should never influence editorial decisions (though as we see with 24/7 cable news networks, it very often clearly does), and editorial stances should never influence revenue decisions. The job of a sales department at a network, in theory, is to grow the bottom line of the network, not to push any particular ideological line of thinking. That said, no one can say definitively that editorial ideology never spills over into revenue decisions, just that it's not typical practice to do so.

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    "It seems, then" based on what? Can you include sources or a line towards your conclusion?
    – Mast
    Feb 14, 2017 at 10:23
  • Based upon the aforementioned U.S. broadcast advertising law––and the fact that this isn't a campaign ad subject to equal-airtime provision––it would follow that broadcasters can refuse to run Oliver's ads. That said, according to traditional journalistic norms of the ad/editorial wall and the increasing financial pressures of broadcast journalism, the likelihood of editorial influencing revenue is almost negligible to non-existent. The 'ad/edit' wall only is broken today in reverse. Feb 14, 2017 at 15:13

As Oliver wasn't running for office, Fox could have refused to run it. The equal opportunity laws apply only to candidates for public office and their direct campaigns.

However, Fox did run it. I suspect that ad would have little impact on the typical Fox viewer, and if Fox had refused, then Oliver could have portrayed that as censorship. A clever tactic by Oliver, and a wise response by Fox.

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