A Federal Communications Commission order to make information on political ad buys more accessible online is bringing new transparency to an election cycle that is unique in recent history for its opacity and high spending.
Beginning on Thursday, broadcast stations owned by or affiliated with ABC, NBC, CBS, or Fox in the top 50 markets will begin the process of putting their public files online, in compliance with a Federal Communications Commission order issued in April. The public files consist of mundane materials like ownership and licensing information, but also a station’s political file, which contains current information about political advertising buys.
Stations are charged with uploading information on political advertising deals to the FCC website on the same day that they come in, beginning on August 2. The documentation shows the duration of the ad buy, the number of spots per week, the length of each spot, the requested time slot, and the ad rate charged.
For political junkies, campaign watchdogs, equity analysts looking at media investments, and especially buyers of political advertising time, the new disclosures will offer a look at campaign spending, ad buys by independent groups, and the bounty reaped by the stations themselves in the scrum of electioneering.
Under the new system, advertising deals concluded on August 2 or after in the network affiliates in the 50 largest markets will appear online as PDF documents. The disclosures cover campaign spending and independent expenditures.
What’s not going to be covered? Advertising deals that were concluded before August 2, regardless of when the ads are intended to run; ads on cable; ads that run on broadcast stations not in the top 50 TV markets. Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation, notes that in the current election cycle, the disclosed information won’t give a true picture of ad spending. “There are key cities in swing states that are not going to have to be disclosed,” she said.
Iowa, for example, doesn’t have a top 50 station. Hispanic stations, which will be the focus of heavy spending in swing states such as Florida, Nevada, and elsewhere, aren’t covered under the disclosure requirements for this election cycle, and won’t be until July 2014, assuming that the rule stands up to court challenges. This is true even in markets where the Univision or Telemundo station is among the top-rated. Because of these limitations, the FCC rule is “a nice step,” Kiely said, “but not a giant leap for mankind.”
While the disclosures are billed as a triumph in transparency, some of the key beneficiaries could be the ad buyers themselves. Forbidden by law from coordinating their efforts, campaigns, Super PACs, and so-called social-welfare groups operating under the 501(c)(4) section of the tax code, now have a relatively quick and easy means of checking up on each other, to avoid duplicating buys in the same market, as the law firm Venable pointed out in an analysis of the new rules. Before Thursday’s rules went into effect, ad buyers were required to make repeated trips to stations to review political files, or rely on information from sales representatives. Now downloadable PDFs of insertion orders are available for easy view.
While it's easier to access the documents online than it is to visit TV stations, the FCC's system does require a lot of virtual digging. Visitors to the TV Stations Profiles portal have to know the call letters of the stations they are looking for, and then conduct searches on a station-by-station basic. Once a station comes up, a user must locate the political file icon and then click through folders that designate federal, state, local, and issue ads, and then locate the office and candidate they want, before searching to see if there has been a new advertising buy added to a station’s political file.
For example, someone interested in checking on media spending in the race for the House seat in Virginia’s 2nd District would have to identify the broadcast stations serving the Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News market area (DMA in FCC jargon) and then drill down through four subsequent folders to find an individual candidate and check on ad buys. The process has to be repeated for each station and each candidate to get a profile of spending on an individual race.
“Even with the FCC, you’re still going to have to go file by file,” Kiely said. The Sunlight Foundation is planning to incorporate the FCC data into a larger pool of campaign-spending information that uses volunteers to collect political file information from stations in small markets not covered by the FCC order, and to gather historical information before the Aug. 2 inception of the new rule, to produce a searchable database of political ad spending.
Among the documents filed on Thursday morning under the new system are orders for $114,900 in ad buys from Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC on Cincinnati ABC affiliate WCPO. It's revealed, for instance, that an ad buy on Wheel of Fortune will run a campaign about five times the cost of a spot on the morning show Live With Regis and Kelly.
It's just this sort of revelation that the broadcasters were looking to avoid when they sought to block the new rule. The National Association of Broadcasters sued the FCC over the rules, arguing that the publication of detailed advertising buy information, including the legally mandated “lowest rate unit” offered by a station in the runup to an election, would give competitors a look at confidential information about ad rates and discounting, and thus put broadcasters at a disadvantage with cable systems that don’t have disclosure requirements. A lawsuit looking to block the rule is still active, but broadcasters were denied in their bid to stay the rules from taking effect.
Over the past month, the FCC has been hosting in-person and online training sessions to acquaint station personnel with the new system. While there were some glitches in the presentation of these sessions, it appears that several hundred individuals were trained on uploading documents to the online public files. NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said, “Our stations, we anticipate, will be doing the best they can to come into compliance.”
The FCC is hoping eventually to make it easier to access the information. There’s a feed on the FCC page that gives links to the most recently updated material, but with upwards of 200 stations adding new information on a daily basis, this is of limited value. Developers who want to create new interfaces to access information by candidate, political contest, and other criteria are free to do so under the FCC’s open API policy. It’s not clear that PDF documents can be converted to machine-readable form. For now, Kiely said, the Sunlight Foundation will rely on staff and volunteers to enter information from documents into their database, “the old fashioned way.”