FCC passes online political ad rule

Stations will be required to post campaign spending info

The FCC will require that broadcasters post detailed information about campaigns’ political ad buying online, after a majority of commissioners on Friday passed a move designed to boost transparency amid the bonanza of dollars flowing to TV stations.

Stations already are required to give public access to the files, but the FCC’s move will force stations to upload that information to a central FCC database.

There is no date set for launching the database, which initially will simply be PDF or other digital copies of the paper file, but agency staffers are hopeful that the first records will be posted before the general election, and even the fall campaign.

TV broadcasters will not be required to upload existing materials in the files to the site, but information about political ad buys going forward. For the next two years, only the top four network affiliates in the top 50 markets will be required to post, with the rest of the stations given until July 1, 2014 to do so. Some 200 stations are expected to fall under the initial requirements, or about 10% of the total stations in the country.

Public interest groups and campaign finance advocates had pressed for the change as a valuable insight into where ad dollars are going and in tracking spending by an array of candidates and interest groups.

For months, broadcasters have objected to the new rule, arguing that even though they already must disclose it, posting it online would give competitors access to commercially sensitive rate information. Broadcasters last week had proposed a compromise to instead post a campaign’s total ad buy, rather than specific information on the exact amount paid per ad. Stations are required to sell candidates time at the lowest unit rate.

But FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said that because the information already is available, albeit with some hassle, competitors already would have exploited it if they found it so valuable. He said what was at stake was whether the information would be “stuck in filing cabinets or stuck online.” Commissioner Mignon Clyburn also supported the new rule, pointing out that the FCC staff had included a “sensible, prudent and measured way to proceed,” citing a provision that requires the FCC to review and take comment next year on how it is working.

She also suggested that the existing disclosure was insufficient, even saying, a bit wryly, that there was sentiment that there was a better chance of an asteroid hitting the earth than two people walking into a station and seeking the information.

“This enhanced transparency is in keeping with the time and is a big, overdue step forward,” Clyburn said.

Commissioner Robert McDowell voted against the new rule, but he supported other parts of it that require stations to post online the rest of their public file, including information on equal opportunity employment hiring and children’s television.

He even suggested that the readily available rate information would raise antitrust issues, as stations could easily share that information.

“By forcing broadcasters to do what would otherwise be illegal is simply surreal,” he said. He also objected because radio stations and other media do not have the same requirements.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters, which had sought a compromise rule, said that the FCC “jeopardizes the competitive standing of stations.” Spokesman Dennis Wharton said they would be seeking guidance from the NAB’s board “regarding our options.”

The passage of the rule is a victory for Genachowski, who has found himself at odds with broadcasters on a number of issues, and faced a subdued reaction as he addressed the NAB convention in Las Vegas last week. He argued that it would actually be more of a burden on stations to provide aggregate data, as they would not be simply uploading paper files but devoting staff time to calculating and gathering aggregate data of political ad buys.

He also found fault with the idea that data would be withheld online — he used the word “censor” — when it already is mandated by Congress. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act in 2002 required the political file disclosure, although the FCC had had rules in place for nearly three decades. And while public interest groups have said the new rule would help counter some of the egregious effects of campaign spending trends in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Genachowski noted that the judicial majority in that ruling emphasized disclosure and the ubiquity of information available online.

“As someone put it, ‘Who can argue against mom, apple pie and transparency?'” Genachowski said.

He didn’t name the source of the quote, but it was said last week by Gordon Smith, the president of NAB.

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