FCC: put public files online

Posted April 27, 2012

The Federal Communications Commission has issued a ruling that may make following the big money spent on political ads a bit easier.

Public stations have long had to maintain public files on a variety of topics, including how much money is spent on political advertising. Those political public files are open to public inspection, but typically only in hard copy form. That means if a reporter is interested in what campaigns are spending and where they're spending it, we'll be driving to each television station and spending some quality time in a file room.

Information from public political files allowed us to do a story this week on ad spending in the constitutional amendment campaign. They also provide a way to track spending by super PACs, 501(c)4 groups, and others who don't necessarily have to report -- or report as thoroughly -- as a traditional candidate campaign has to do. 

Still, trudging from station to station is a bit of a chore and hardly provides for instant updates. So there has been something of a push to get stations to put this information online. That push has become all the more vocal with the increased spending we expect to see associated with this presidential campaign cycle. 

The broadcast industry has object the push to put these files online. Among the biggest arguments against is that information in public files reveals sensitive rate information to competitors.

Enter the FCC, which today sided against broadcasters ruled that stations would have to submit their public files to an central online warehouse open to the public.

The ruling is initially limited. From a news release:

Broadcasters will not be required to upload existing materials in these “political files” to the online website. Rather, stations will need only to upload new political file documents going forward. In addition, for the next two years only stations that are affiliated with the top four national networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox) and are licensed to serve communities in the top 50 Designated Market Areas (DMAs) are required to post political file documents online.

In North Carolina, the Top 50 market rule will mean Charlotte, Triangle and Triad stations will be among the first to put their information online. While that doesn't cover all the geography in the state, it covers the bulk of the ad dollars.

There will be some time before the rules goes into effect. It must first be reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget to ensure it complies with the federal Paperwork Reduction Act. It then must be published in the Federal Register. It would go into effect 30 days after it is published. 

While that's not a hard and fast time line, the rule could be in force by the end of the summer and just in time for all the ad spending that will be poured into the fall General Election campaign. 


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