Hillary Clinton appeared on "Saturday Night Live" for three minutes and 12 seconds on Oct. 3, beginning at 11:53:01 p.m. Eastern time. That precision is available thanks to WNBC New York's filing with the Federal Communications Commission, which alerted the agency that it had provided those three-plus minutes to a presidential candidate for free.
Why does the FCC care? Because that scripted appearance probably triggers the "equal opportunity" clause of federal communications law.
Sure enough, long-shot Democratic candidate -- and law professor -- Larry Lessig has already sent a letter to NBC affiliates demanding an equal opportunity to appear on their stations under that provision. The law states that if a candidate is allowed to use a broadcast station, the station must "afford equal opportunities to all other such candidates for that office in the use of such broadcasting station." That doesn't hold for "bona fide" news programs, like Donald Trump's infinite Sunday morning interviews, but probably holds for something like a scripted appearance on SNL.
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, explains that this is a slightly murky area.
"There have been enough instances where you have seen a walk-on at something like 'Saturday Night Live' where I don't think the equal opportunity was claimed," she said. "But you can make a pretty good argument that there's no aspect of this that's a bona fide news program." As the media have gotten more diverse in their formats, the "boundaries of what triggers equal opportunity have grown over the years," McGehee said. Things like "The Daily Show," which mix comedy and interviews, helped shift precedent with the FCC.
So McGehee thinks Lessig probably has a good argument. But this thing goes in a lot of different directions very quickly.
First, every station independently is affected. "The requirement is at the station level; it's not at the network," McGehee said. So if Bernie Sanders demanded three minutes of sketch comedy on every NBC affiliate that aired Clinton's SNL sketch across the country, he'd have a good case. (How the station and the candidate sort out meeting that requirement, shy of a showing up on SNL, is apparently negotiable.)
Second, it applies only to broadcast networks. Note that this is an FCC rule, not a Federal Elections Commission one. The rule exists because TV stations are granted broadcast licenses by the government. If NBC wanted to stream an SNL sketch online and only online, that would be different.
Third, it applies to every qualified candidate in a race. So if there were, say, 15 Republicans running for president and, say, one of them was offered the opportunity to host "Saturday Night Live," that would open a can of worms.
Oh, right. Donald Trump is hosting on Nov. 7.
"If I were an affiliate of NBC," McGehee said, "I would be saying: 'Hey, guys, wait a minute. You realize the obligation you're imposing on us for the rest of these candidates?'" The obligation is potentially substantial: Trump's appearance would be hard to defend as being oriented around a bona fide news broadcast or interview, and there are at least 14 other Republicans who could make a claim to however long Trump appears onscreen.
For a host, that's a few sketches and the opening monologue, at least. When he was on SNL in 2004, Trump appeared in at least 23 minutes of programming. Twenty-three minutes times 14 candidates is nearly five and a half hours of broadcast time. For however many of the hundreds of NBC affiliates that air the show.
And that depends on how strictly the FCC (in the form of assistant director Robert Baker) defines "qualified candidate." The government has definitions to that end, but it's not clear how many of the 230-plus Republicans who have filed as presidential candidates can meet the standard. Sure, Jeb Bush can, but what about Mark Everson? (One limiting factor: The candidates would probably need to at least have enough money to hire a lawyer, McGehee says.) If even 30 file for an equal opportunity in response to Trump and are granted it, that's 11 hours -- per station.
There is a universe out there, somewhere, in which this is all easily resolved. In a special two-hour "Saturday Night Live" airing shortly before Christmas, the 15 most-discussed Republicans and 22 other weirdos perform a series of skits and monologues for the benefit of NBC viewers across the country. Back here on this Earth, though, the question is a lot more tricky.
It's the sort of thing that would be pretty fun to lampoon on a late-night variety show.