FCC Vote Brings Political Ad Files from Backrooms to the Internet for Top 50 Markets


Today the Federal Communications Commission took an important step to bring broadcasting into the 21st Century by requiring television broadcasters to put their public and political files online beginning this year.

Since 1965, TV broadcast stations that hold licenses from the FCC to use the publicly owned airwaves to serve specific communities have been required to disclose information about “community-relevant information for public review.”  The purpose of the disclosure was to help ensure that the broadcasters are meeting their public interest obligations and, in the case of the political file, especially to ensure they are abiding by their statutory obligations to offer candidates lower cost advertising in the heat of a campaign – an “anti-gouging” assurance.

The FCC voted 2-1 today to move the public file from the back room file cabinets onto a central, online database hosted by the FCC.  Those files include information about who purchased political ad time, the disposition of any request to purchase time for a political ad, the amount charged and when the political ad actually ran.  For the first two years, the new rule applies only to stations that are affiliated with the top four national networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox) and are licensed to serve communities in the top 50 Designated Market Areas (DMAs).

“The Commission’s action is an important victory for transparency and accountability in our nation’s public policy making broadcasters’ public files truly public,” said Meredith McGehee, Policy Director of the Campaign Legal Center.  “Keeping this information in file cabinets that required a personal visit to the TV station served only to make it difficult to hold broadcasters accountable for meeting the few requirements they have – reasonable access, equal opportunity and lowest unit charge.

“It is unfortunate that in this year’s election, there will still be many markets that are expected to see massive advertising campaigns by outside groups where this information will remain difficult to access,” McGehee said.  “It is in the smaller, more affordable markets where political ads for congressional and state races play a more significant role in the outcome of elections.  Just look at the races for Senate in New Mexico, Virginia, Nebraska, and Montana.

“But hopefully this FCC action has set a process in place that will continue and cover those markets in time for the next election.  Commissioners Genachowski and Clyburn deserve credit for withstanding the onslaught of opposition that the broadcasters are always skilled at bringing on matters about which they are concerned.”