FCC considering more transparency for political ads


Moving with unusual speed, the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday served notice that may require cable and satellite TV providers, as well as radio stations, to post political ad contracts online.

The FCC’s request for public comments comes one week after the Sunlight Foundation, the Campaign Legal Center and Common Cause, represented by the Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Legal Representation, asked the agency to expand its database of political ad contracts.

While all TV and radio operations are required to make political ad contracts available for inspection by the public, only broadcast stations must post those documents online. To see contracts for ads purchased from cable or satellite providers, or at radio stations, members of the public must physically visit stations and request paper files.

The ad contracts offer a treasure trove of information for journalists, academics and others interested in campaign disclosure; the Sunlight Foundation has used its a searchable, sortable database of the broadcast files, Political Ad Sleuth, to identify otherwise anonymous political players and put price tags on ad campaigns that are not reported to the Federal Election Commission.

Broadcasters fought online disclosure for more than a decade before the FCC in 2012 won a court decision to establish a pilot project — involving about 230 stations in the nation’s 50 top markets. As the agency noted in Thursday’s request for public comment, that project went so smoothly that the FCC expanded the order on July 1 to require all of the nation’s more than 2,000 broadcasters to begin uploading political ad files. The FCC says its ad files have drawn nearly 5 million page views.

The FCC set Aug. 28 as the deadline for filing comments on the proposal to expand its database.