FCC orders radio, cable, satellite TV providers to put political ad info online

Posted January 29


— Radio, cable television and satellite television operators will have to begin submitting information about what political candidates and causes spend on advertising to an online database, under an order issued by the Federal Communications Commission this week.

The rules are not final yet and will be phased in after the public has a chance to comment. Once they take effect, likely around the end of summer, the new rules will expand the public's access to information about what those trying to influence elections are spending.

Commissioners voted 5-0 to make the change.

"We live in the information age," said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "As a result, we demand – and expect – all sorts of data and intelligence to be available at our fingertips virtually anytime, anywhere. So, it strikes me as pretty retrograde that this Commission still has on its books a requirement that radio, cable and satellite providers can keep their public files on paper, in dusty file cabinets locked in the information practices of the past."

Broadcast television providers are already required to put this information online by uploading it to a database maintained by the FCC.

Although various state and federal laws require those trying to influence elections to report their spending to either state boards of election or the Federal Election Commission, those rules don't cover all political spending. In particular, some nonprofit groups that air campaign-like ads can often put commercials on the air without formally disclosing that spending. That means the "political files" maintained at the behest of the FCC often gives voters their only glimpse of what's being spent in a campaign.

Even for campaign entities that report their spending, the files often give the public more rapid access to campaign spending information and provide a higher level of detail than what's available in campaign spending reports.

Television files began moving online in 2012 and completed the move in 2014. Before then, people interested in the information would have to go from station to station to review paper files.

Although broadcast television is the most expensive medium for advertisers – and the one that chews up the most campaign dollars every year – millions of dollars flow from political groups to cheaper, and often more targeted, radio and cable spending.

While putting the files online will aid in transparency, the process is not perfect. Currently, television stations upload digital PDF files each time an advertiser makes a buy. The forms can vary from station to station and make automated analysis less than convenient.

Groups such as the Sunlight Foundation have created tools to access the information, but even tools like that don't always offer a complete picture.

That's one of the reasons WRAL News and other news outlets buy data from providers such as Kantar Media, which provides structured data that is more easily analyzed and turned into stories and graphics. For example, recent information available form Kantar shows that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have recently bought television air time in the Greenville, S.C., market, which viewers in the western part of North Carolina see.


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