FCC Takes Important Step for Transparency in Political Advertising


Late Friday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a notice reminding all U.S. television broadcasters that as of July 1, 2014, they will be required to post their political files online in a Commission-hosted database.  Of vital importance in this requirement is the information it provides regarding political advertisers.  The Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition (PIPAC) has repeatedly urged the FCC to require this disclosure to increase transparency as required by statute.  The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has fought this move despite losing an effort to stay the requirement at the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2012.

“Applying these online disclosure requirements for every TV broadcast station in the U.S. is an important victory for transparency in our political process,” said Meredith McGehee, Policy Director of Campaign Legal Center, which leads the PIPAC. “By moving forward with the online filing requirement for the political file, the FCC’s policy will help ensure that viewers have the information they need to assess for themselves the messages they are viewing.  We commend FCC Chair Tom Wheeler and the Commission for letting a little more sunshine breakthrough in the multi-billion dollar business of political advertising, despite pushback from some FCC licensees.”

The Coalition recognizes the dominant role that television plays in our nation’s political contests.  The Sunlight Foundation estimates that money spent on broadcast political ads in 2012 was about $5.6 billion, up 30% from 2008.  “For too long these files, which contain important information about who is paying to influence voters through political ads, have existed only on paper,” said Lisa Rosenberg, government affairs consultant for the Sunlight Foundation. "This information has long been considered public, but accessible only to those who could take the time to dig through a station's file cabinet. By putting already public information online, the FCC will ensure that anyone who wants access can get it.”  Noted Cheryl A. Leanza, policy advisor for the UCC's media justice ministry, OC Inc., "The United Church of Christ's media justice ministry has long pushed to ensure that ordinary citizens can better understand the political process through this kind of disclosure."

Broadcasters’ claims that such reporting is burdensome do not withstand the laugh test.  Not only have they kept these files without issue for years, even the smallest broadcasters keep the vast majority of their information on computers.  “Putting the political files online is a small and inconsequential price for TV stations for the millions in additional revenue they get from political advertising,” said Charles Benton of the Benton Foundation.  “Indeed, filing these reports should be accurately viewed as a minor matter in complying with the stations’ public interest obligations.” 

PIPAC’s members include the Benton Foundation, the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Free Press, Institute for Public Representation of Georgetown Law, New America Foundation, Public Citizen, Sunlight Foundation, United Church of Christ Office of Communication, Inc.

As the FCC noted in its reminder, “stations affiliated with the top four national networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) licensed to service communities in the top 50 Designated Market Areas (DMAs) were required to post political file documents online beginning August 2, 2012.”  Prior to that date, the ad files were only available by making an appointment at a local TV station to arrange a personal visit during business hours and usually facing a charge for making copies of the files.  “Even though this information has long been public record, many stations did not realize it and were reluctant to open up their files,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “Now that this information is going on-line, the public will have easy access to these records.”

The information required to be included in a broadcast licensee’s political advertising file includes “a complete and orderly” record of all requests for specific schedules of advertising time by candidates and certain issue advertisers on issues of national importance, as well as the final dispositions or “deals” agreed to by the broadcaster and the advertiser in response to any requests.  For ads from outside groups, the file is supposed to fully identify the ad’s sponsors as well as the issue and the candidate referred to in the ad.  Also, the file should record any free time provided to a candidate.  The file must have information on offers of “lowest unit charge” for candidates, as well as the station’s compliance with “equal access” for all legally qualified candidates for public office and reasonable access” for federal candidates.  Finally, the file must include the reconciliation of the deal such as a description of when advertising actually aired, advertising preempted, and the timing of any make-goods of preempted time, as well as credits or rebates provided the advertiser. 

In its explanation of the new rules, the FCC notes that the Commission first adopted rules requiring broadcast stations to keep a public file more than 40 years ago and certain political programming files have been public for nearly 75 years. 

“Under Professor Angela Campbell’s leadership, the Institute for Public Representation has worked for years to get the FCC to insist on greater transparency about broadcasters' activities,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, Benton Senior Counselor at IPR.  “This is an important milestone, but we're going to press for even more disclosure.”  Currently, the FCC allows broadcasters to upload these files as “pdf” files -- documents without standardized formatting.   The Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition has urged the FCC to adopt a standardized reporting form and will continue to strongly urge the FCC to require broadcast licensees to upload this information in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format, similar to other government databases (e.g., lobbying disclosure database, federal election information).