FCC to TV Stations: Put Political-Ad Information Online (Updated)

The new FCC requirements came as a rebuff to broadcast station owners, who said the change will hurt them competitively


The Federal Communications Commission on Friday voted to phase in requirements that local TV stations put information about political advertising online.

Under the rules, TV stations affiliated with the four top TV networks in the nation's 50 largest markets will be required to file political information online first. All other TV stations will be exempt from the new requirements until July 1, 2014, to give the FCC the opportunity to see how the changes work.

The vote came as a rebuff to broadcast station owners, who had been lobbying vigorously against the change.

Though FCC rules already require broadcasters to document their political ad sales in publicly accessible files at their stations, you have to visit a station in person to get the data.

Under the new requirement, you can access in the information at the click of a mouse.

Broadcasters are expected to reap $3 billion from political ad sales this year, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in an April 16 speech at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas.

The new rule adopted by the FCC also will require broadcasters to publish online other information that they currently keep in the public files in their stations, including network-affiliation agreements and contracts affecting station ownership.

"In putting these files online, the FCC is requiring broadcasters to take a step that innumerable other entities have opted for since the World Wide Web became a part of our daily lives, and putting public files on the Internet in 2012 makes sense," Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn said in a statement. "It is the expected means of data viewing, and this action requires no unreasonable amount of production or disclosure."

He added: I see no reason to limit the reach of the online public file. We do not restrict, in any way, shape or form, who can access the existing paper files, and I see no need to do so for this new regime."

At a news conference after the vote, Genachowski rejected TV station arguments that the online revelations could hurt broadcasters financially.

 “The record does not show that there’s any likelihood of … commercial harms coming out of this, because we’re talking about information that is already publicly available,” he said. “While it’s information that is difficult for an ordinary consumer to access, it’s not difficult for commercial businesses to access. So any existing commercial business that believes there’s value in those rates is already getting them.”

Consumer advocacy group the Free Press applauded the decision. “Today’s vote is a win for transparency, open access to information and the public," Free Press Senior Policy Counsel said in a statement. "For over a decade, public interest groups have been asking the FCC to give people unfettered access to the information they already have a legal right to see. Free Press applauds the FCC for bringing the public files online and into the 21st century.

Broadcasters were not so positive.

"NAB respectfully disagrees with today's FCC decision and we're disappointed that the Commission rejected compromise proposals proffered by broadcasters that would have brought greater transparency to political ad buying," National Association of Broadcasters Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton said in a statement.

"By forcing broadcasters to be the only medium to disclose on the Internet our political advertising rates, the FCC jeopardizes the competitive standing of stations that provide local news, entertainment, sports and life-saving weather information free of charge to tens of millions of Americans daily," he added.

Before the vote, broadcasters had complained that the full disclosure on the internet would make sensitive pricing information about station ad rates too readily available to competitors in their markets — including local cable TV systems, which also sell political ads but aren’t required to file their own political sales data online.

In addition, broadcasters expressed concern that the requirement would make detailed ad pricing too easy for the station’s commercial advertisers to get.

Many broadcasters wanted the agency to accept a compromise that would have required stations to post only general summary information.

Part of the reason that the broadcasters have been concerned is that the law requires them to sell candidates ads at the lowest rate that the station offers to its best commercial advertising customers during the 60 days preceding a general election and in the 45 days before a primary.

“Placing the individual rate information online could cause harm to stations when they negotiate with commercial advertisers, who would know, at the click of a button, the rates that a station is charging its most favored commercial advertisers, at every station, in very market in the country,” said Maureen O’Connell, News Corp. senior vice president, regulatory and government affairs, in an April 23 letter at the FCC.  

“There is an extraordinary difference … between making this commercially sensitive information available upon request at a station’s studio and publishing it for all to see on the Internet,” O’Connell said.

Supporters of the FCC’s proposed change argued that the public’s interest in the disclosure of spending by political campaigns outweighed the broadcast industry’s business concerns.

“The vigor with which broadcasters are objecting to the FCC’s proposals suggest they have something to hide,” said Angela Campbell, co-director of the Institute for Public Representation, in an April 20 filing at the FCC. “Could it be the huge amount of money they are making from election-related advertising?”

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