FCC expects political ad buys to be online before 2012 election


The Federal Communications Commission voted to give the public online access to reports detailing new political ad buys from affiliates of the top four networks in the 50 largest media markets before November’s election, despite objections from the nation’s broadcasters.

The only hurdle now: the Office of Management and Budget must approve the new rule. After that, the top four stations in the biggest markets will put the ad buys on the Federal Communication Commission’s website. And the FCC expects that approval soon, William Lake, the chief of the media bureau, told reporters after the meeting.

After the Office of Management and Budget reviews the rule, the broadcast networks will have 30 days to put new ad buys online.

“Our hope and expectation is that it will take effect during this election cycle,” Lake said, even though he would not give an exact date.

At the hearing, by a 2 to 1 vote, the FCC approved putting the political file online. The dissension came from Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell. Here is a timeline of what will happen now:

  • 30 Days after the OMB approves the rule: new political ads at 200 stations will be posted online.
  • One year from today: FCC will conduct a review of the online political ad file requirement.
  • July 1, 2014: If no new rules are made, all of the country’s roughly 2,000 broadcast stations would have to post their political files online.

The rulemaking has been contentious, with the FCC receiving over 200 comments since it issued a notice of proposed rulemaking in October.

Open government groups, including the Sunlight Foundation, have been pushing for the rule during a year when TV stations could benefit from over $3 billion in political ad buys (read Sunlight's take on the rule's passage here). Currently, broadcast stations are required to maintian public files showing information on political ad purchases by campaigns and outside spending groups; to access the files, individuals must go to the each station and request access. 

Corie Wright, an attorney at Free Press, a media reform group, said after the meeting, “The commission ruled that the public actually deserves the right to view the data they already have a legal right to see.”

Opposing the new rule was the National Association of Broadcasters, the trade group for the broadcast industry. The television stations will comply with the rule, but will review its legal options, including potential challenges to it because it may be arbitrary and capricious for singling out broadcast TV (as opposed to cable, for instance), spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

Broadcasters have argued that putting the ad rate information online would hurt profits because advertisers, aware of the rates, would be better able to negotiate their own ad buys, a concern echoed by McDowell, the lone commissioner to vote against the rule. He also said there could be tens of thousands of dollars in new costs each year from uploading the information in real-time. “Without a bona fide cost-benefit analysis…the majority cannot be sure it’s not doing more harm to the public than good,” he said.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski rebuffed this concern. “The record does not show that there is any likelihood of there to be commercial harms coming out of this,” he told reporters. The data is already publicly available and easy for businesses to access; if they believe there is value in the rates, they are already getting them, Genachowski told reporters.

However, the files will still be difficult to sort. There is no requirement that the image files, which will be posted to the FCC website, have to be searchable or machine-readable.

During the meeting, Chairman Julius Genachowski called the move “common sense.” He said that compliance with the new rule would only entail “very modest transition costs” and will save money for broadcasters once it’s complete.

In one year, the FCC will issue a public notice asking whether placing the ads buys online has put any unforeseen burdens on the broadcasters. Whether any new rulemaking is proposed at that time depends on the comments that are received, Lake said.