When Candidates Script TV Shows:

Politico reports that comedian-turned-Democratic Senate candidate Al Franken "phoned in" Saturday Night Live's opening sketch lampooning Senator John McCain's campaign ads criticizing Senator Barack Obama.

n SNL insider said that, as of the Wednesday script read-through, Franken was the "credited writer with Meyers" on the opening sketch. . . .

A Franken campaign aide said the candidate had been taping an ad earlier in the week and had wondered out loud how McCain could include the disclaimer candidates are required to include in their commercials — "I'm John McCain, and I approved this message" — when his spots were so "over the top."

Later that day, Franken talked to Michaels about topics unrelated to the show and mentioned his thought but did not suggest a sketch.

However, Michaels talked to Meyers about Franken's idea and the current writer, believing there was a funny sketch there, called his predecessor and they discussed it further.

The sketch was certainly amusing, but it also reinforced the Obama campaign's meme that the McCain campaign is running egregiously misleading campaign ads. SNL is certainly free to run whatever sorts of skits it likes, from whatever perspective, but I wonder whether there are any legal implications to this particular skit given that it was suggested, if not actually scripted, by a political candidate running for office. While Senator McCain is not Franken's opponent, one could argue that Franken would benefit from attacks on McCain insofar as they result in more votes for Democratic candidates. Programming written or outlined by Franken could be viewed as tantamount to free advertising on his, or the Democratic Party's, behalf. On the other hand, had the exact same spoof been written without Franken's participation, there would clearly be no legal issue at all.

To flip the scenario around, imagine if a Republican Senate candidate scripted a sketch attacking a Senator Barack Obama for a conservative talk radio host. The content might not be much different than what one usually finds on Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or some other program, but the direct involvement of a candidate might raise legal questions. Would this be tantamount to offering free advertising under existing campaign finance laws? Or would it simply be treated as the usual conservative talk-radio fare? Without the Fairness Doctrine, radio programs are free to interview some candidates more than others. Should other content be treated differently? I'd be curious to hear what VC readers think about this.