Sarah Abdurrahman is a producer for On the Media
Broadcasters Appeal FCC Requirement to Put Political Ad Buys Online
Thursday, May 24, 2012 - 02:44 PM
Back in January, OTM reported on an FCC proposal that would require local television stations to disclose political ad buys online. According to an article by ProPublica, the National Associations of Broadcasts has sued to block the proposal from taking effect.
TV stations are already required to maintain a paper file that includes information on political ad sales that they call the "public file," but the only way you can view that file is if you actually schlep to the station and request it in person. If you live in Texas and want to look at a file in Florida, you're out of luck. As former FCC advisor Steven Waldman told Bob:
WALDMAN: You can take this material and put it online and, in doing that, make it much more useful because people from other towns can see it, you can take information from five different stations and aggregate it easily and see really what the patterns are in a community or across a region. It really takes this gold mine of really useful information and makes it much more effective as a transparency tool.
Local TV stations aren’t nearly as excited about posting their ad buy information. The National Association of Broadcasters opposes the proposal, claiming that putting the information online would be too costly and burdensome. Jack Goodman, an outside counsel to the NAB, told Bob that political ad buy information wasn’t kept in an easily uploaded format:
GOODMAN: Right now there are a variety of types of records that go into a station's political file. There are initial inquiries from candidates and their managers about the availabilities of time. That can come in by email, that can come in by fax, that can come in by a telephone call.
Then the Commission requires that the station keep records of how it disposed of those requests, which can often mean multiple offers and counter-offers. Say, a candidate says, I want 200 spots, the station says, how about 60, and they negotiate to 110. All of those negotiations have to be reflected in the file.
The FCC approved the regulation last month. But as ProPublica’s Justin Elliott told Brooke, the final version of the requirement is pretty limited, only requiring affiliates of the four major broadcasters in the top 50 markets to participate. On top of that, he said the inconsistent formatting of the files would make them fairly unusable:
ELLIOTT: The FCC decided not to require the stations to submit the data in a single format, and I’ve looked at a lot of these files; some of them are hardly readable. It looks like they’ve gone through a fax machine three times before being scanned. That’s gonna be a major barrier to actually analyzing the data on any kind of scale.
Despite these limited requirements, broadcasters are not happy. The National Association of Broadcasters filed a petition this week with the U.S. Court of Appeals, asking the court to block the FCC order "on the grounds that it is arbitrary, capricious, in excess of the Commission’s statutory authority, inconsistent with the First Amendment, and otherwise not in accordance with the law."
The NAB's petition also notes that the FCC order will “directly and adversely impact” the broadcasters whose interests the NAB represents. In addition to the administrative obstacles associated with uploading the files, stations are worried about competitors being able to easily see the ad rates they're offering to politicians.
If it stands the NAB challenge, the FCC rule will go into effect this summer. In the meantime, if you're interested in shining some light on ad buy information, you can join ProPublica's crowdsourced project of volunteers who are helping the news outfit create a repository of ad-buy information by going to their local stations and reviewing the public file.