FCC chief urges access on pols’ ad buys

Genachowski tells NAB aud that public should have online view of spending

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski on Monday defended a plan to require stations to post information about candidates’ political ad buys online, saying that some of the critics are taking a stand “against technology, against transparency and against journalism.”

Speaking to the National Assn. of Broadcasters, Genachowski gave little indication that he would support softening the proposal in the wake of the org’s concerns that posting the data would give away rate information to competitors.

Stations are already required to disclose the information, but the public can usually access the records only by visiting their offices.

Posting the information online once a campaign has made an ad buy could shed light on election spending and strategy — valuable data, especially in the final weeks before voters go to the polls. Public interest groups say such disclosures could serve as something of a counterweight to the unprecedented spending among candidates and interest groups.

“Using rhetoric that one writer described as ‘teeth gnashing’ and ‘fire breathing,’ some in the broadcast industry have elected to position themselves against technology, against transparency and against journalism,” Genachowski said in his remarks.

He added that the argument “against moving the public file online is that required broadcaster disclosures shouldn’t be too public. But in a world where everything is going digital, why have a special exemption for broadcasters’ political disclosure obligation?”

Genachowski also quoted from editorials in favor of the online disclosure proposal and referred to the support of journalism-school deans in a not-so-veiled reminder that so many stations who reap the bonanza of political ad dollars do because campaigns most prize local newscasts. He noted that estimates put broadcast political ad spending at $3 billion in 2012.

He also dismissed notions that the disclosure would put a regulatory burden on stations, saying costs would be “minimal.” He also said the FCC had the authority to make the change, and not the Federal Election Commission, as the agency’s role is “clear, essential and long-standing.”

After the speech, NAB prexy Gordon Smith told reporters that the org’s members are not opposed to putting information online, including the total size of a candidate’s ad buy, but are concerned about the actual rate information.

“We are happy to tell people who bought what, and how much. But we are concerned about collateral commercial damage,” Smith said.

Smith also suggested that broadcasters were in a tough spot. “Who can be against mom, apple pie, the American way and transparency? On the other hand, it is a fundamentally different animal when you keep (the information) in your shop vs. when you put it instantaneously in front of the whole world. That has the potential to impact your other rates.”

Genachowski’s annual appearances at NAB usually come with some friction with broadcasters. As he noted, when he spoke to the org two years ago, Smith “likened me to the Godfather.” The FCC had just introduced a proposal for voluntary incentive auctions in which broadcasters would give up spectrum for wireless use, something stations felt amounted to choosing one technology over another.

Although the incentive auctions were approved in legislation that passed this year, it is up to the FCC to fill in the details. Genachowski essentially gave a pitch to stations to consider moving from UHF to VHF, to share channels or even to sign off altogether in an effort to free up the airwaves and meet the demand for mobile bandwidth. The idea is that station owners could get a cash infusion as they share proceeds from the auction. There also is a $1.75 billion fund for broadcasters who choose not to participate but are forced to move on the dial.

“The core idea is this: Don’t miss the boat on an opportunity you might regret passing up,” Genachowski said, adding that “our phones have been ringing” at the FCC with queries from stations expressing interest.

Smith said that “there’s a lot of work to do” in fleshing out the details of the auctions, with the FCC looking to start rulemaking proceedings this fall. He also sounded skeptical as to how many stations would participate. “I can count on one hand the number of broadcasters who have told me they are interested in cashing in and going out of business,” he said.

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