The News Without Transparency: FCC Ruling Makes Tracking Political Ad Buying Easier


In light of the first presidential debate held last Wednesday at the University of Denver, an article by USA Today reported that the Romney and Obama campaigns along with their supporters have dropped nearly $700 million on TV ads in Denver with a little over a month to go until Election Day. With more than 26,000 ads airing in Denver so far this election cycle, commercial breaks on TV stations like the NBC affiliate KUSA have been flooded by political ads with as many as 93 ads from the two campaigns and the super PACs supporting them running in the course of a day.

Following the political ad campaign finance trail and compiling statistics like the ones cited in the USA Today piece, however, was previously a nearly impossible feat for reporters as broadcast stations were not required to publicly disclose their political ad revenue files until recently. In April, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed a landmark rule that now requires broadcast stations to post their political ad revenue files online so that political ad spending can be tracked in real-time. The passage of this rule marks a new era of transparency in campaign finance disclosure, as formerly political ad files were only available in paper, most often inaccessibly warehoused in file cabinets at individual TV stations. In this particular USA Today article, however, it is important to note that the reporters compiled more nuanced data–ranging from the specific time slots in which ads aired to the breakdown of viewer demographics–than what is currently available from the FCC website.

The system, however, still has limitations with only the top four TV networks’ affiliates (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) in the top 50 media markets required to comply in the first two years. Additionally, broadcasters are not obligated to disclose campaign ad revenue data prior to when the rule went into effect on August 2nd nor are they required to post their data in a standardized format, which severely limits the accessibility and searchability of the FCC’s database. This is why organizations like the Sunlight Foundation and Free Press are partnering to roll out Political Ad Sleuth, an app that will capture a more complete and user-friendly depiction of political ad spending in key swing states like Colorado, where political ads are dominating the airwaves in a vie for votes.

“The News Without Transparency” shows you what the news would look like without public access to information. Laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available are absolutely vital, along with services that take that raw data and make it easy for reporters to write sentences like the ones we’ve redacted in the piece above. View the entire series here! If you have an article you’d like us to put through the redaction machine, please send us an email at