Raleigh, N.C. — A key battleground in contests for president, governor and Congress became easier to understand Thursday when the Federal Communications Commission began publishing information on how much candidates and their allies are spending on televised political advertisements.
Although the new FCC rules won't immediately provide a complete picture of television spending -- by far the most expensive component of statewide and national contests -- they do open a world once only accessible through labor-intensive gathering and analysis of paper records.
Television stations already are required to share a variety of information about how they do business as a criteria for holding their broadcast licenses. Among that information is how much advertisers spend on political ads.
Up to now, those so-called "public files" have been kept on paper records. Getting access to the information has traditionally meant visiting each station's administrative office in person during business hours, taking notes or making photocopies -- a time-consuming and potentially expensive task.
Starting Aug. 2, 2012, the FCC will collect the information in those station public files electronically and post it online. Only certain station's in the nation's top 50 markets will be required to start sharing political information electronically immediately, with the remainder to follow July 1, 2014. Still, open government advocates and journalists say it is a big step toward openness.
Different buyers, different ads, different reporting
"There's a lot going on that's under the radar right now," said Kathy Kiely, managing editor for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that both lobbies for open government and publishes research on campaign spending and other topics.
Spending on politically-related broadcast television ads topped $7.9 million by July 7 in the Raleigh television market alone, according to a report by Wells Fargo securities analysts. Total ad spending across the nation was $647.7 million according to the same report.
Not all of that spending shows up on reports filed with election watchdogs such as the Federal Elections Commission or North Carolina's State Board of Elections.
Kiely said that certain types of nonprofits -- those organized under section 501(c)4 of the tax code and similar groups -- don't have to report their donors and are even exempt from reporting some of their spending during certain periods. As long as those ads don't run close to an election or contain certain key words like "vote for" or "elect," they are not reported as election spending.
For example, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies (Crossroads GPS), a 501(c)4 affiliated with Republican causes, has aired at least two ads in North Carolina and eight other battleground states this summer. Its most recent commercial criticizes the slow pace of economic recovery under president Obama, blaming it on "President Obama's failed stimulus policies."
But because it does not urge viewers to vote for or against the president and falls outside of a legally-defined pre-election windows, the group won't have to detail its spending on the ad or where the money to air it came from.
However, television stations do have to report how much they charge Crossroads GPS to run the advertisement. And because television ads make up the bulk of the money such independent expenditure groups spend on campaigns, television stations' public political files provide information not available anywhere else.
The Center for Responsive Politics estimated in June that only about a third of what might be fairly considered campaign spending in the presidential race was being reported to the Federal Elections Commission. That reporting disparity opened wider than ever before during the past three in the wake of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that cleared the way for corporate spending on political ads.
Even those who submit regular reports to campaign finance authorities obscure -- intentionally or not -- their spending. Presidential campaigns, for example, frequently report payments to a central media buyer that then purchases air time in different states.
"That doesn't tell you what markets that money is being spent in," said Justin Elliott, a reporter with the nonprofit Pro Publica who has been reporting on the public files issue. Reporters and other watchdogs encounter similar vagaries in the campaign reports filed by the presidential campaigns themselves as well.
Timing, too, can be a factor. In North Carolina, gubernatorial campaigns don't have to report spending on large media buys made close to Election Day until after the votes are cast.
The National Association of Broadcasters, a trade group for the television industry, has resisted the new FCC rules and is still pursuing a lawsuit that seeks to stop the new reporting requirement. That resistance has had less to do with politics than it has with a reluctance to widely share the rates charged for different kinds of ads.
"We continue to believe it is fundamentally unfair for local TV stations to be the only medium required to disclose on the Internet sensitive advertising rate information," NAB executive vice president Dennis Wharton said after a legal setback in July.
While the new rules have limitations, public interest advocates say they're an important first step in understanding one of the most important areas of campaign spending.
Q: Where can I find this information?
First, have some patience.
The requirement that ad orders be posted online begins Aug. 2, but the political sections of many station's political files will be blank until they receive new orders.
The FCC's lists public information by station. Users may use this link to search for stations by their call signs or channel numbers.
For stations in the Raleigh market, find information for:
As a side note: Cable companies do have their own disclosure requirements. You can click here to visit Time Warner Cable's online political file.
Q: Who is required to report this information on political ad buys?
The requirement cover the network affiliates of CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox in the nation's Top 50 media markets. In North Carolina, that means such stations based in Raleigh, Asheville, Charlotte and Greensboro.
Those stations in smaller markets or who are not affiliates of one of the four biggest networks will not have to start posting their political files until July 1, 2014.
This leaves out big tracts of real estate in some campaign swing states. In North Carolina, for example, stations serving the Greenville and Wilmington markets won't have to upload their political files.
It also leaves out independent stations, cable and those affiliated with other networks. For example, Spanish-language network Univision recently claimed to have reached 9.3 million American viewers over the age of 2 during one recent night of programming.
Q: What will I find in these reports?
Public files contain lots of information, such as how much public service programming -- like news broadcasts -- a station airs. The files also contain copies of a station's license, complaints, and reports on the demographics of those interviewed for job postings.
All stations will have to start uploading most non-political information on Aug. 2. There are some exceptions. For example, letters and emails sent to the station won't be put online.
In the context of political campaigns, documents show what business or individual bought the ads, how much time they bought and when those ads run. They also contain the name of at least once officer of the group and information about how much those ads cost.
Q: What's missing?
In terms of the political files, anything before Aug. 2. Documents already in the non-political parts of the public file will have to be uploaded in the next six months but "no station ever has to upload to the online file its political files that pre-date Aug. 2, 2012," according to the FCC.
Q: So this will make understanding campaigns easier?
For reporters and others who follow politics. Kiely and Elliott says it's unlikely average viewers will be running to their computers after seeing a stray political ad on the television.
But for those who track campaign spending, this will be a boon.
"It's going to save a lot of legwork," Kiely said.
There are limitations, however. Most of the documents will be uploaded in PDF format, which show you the document as it is filed with the station but can be hard to search. Also, stations use different types of order forms to record advertising buys, which can make comparisons difficult.
"What you'd really want, ultimately, is what the tech types call 'structured data,' " Kiely said.
The Federal Elections Commission, for example, has candidates and campaigns use a standard form and report electronically. Figures from those reports are searchable and can by analyzed quickly and easily. Those interested in crunching the numbers available from the FCC will have to transfer information from those PDF documents to a database.
"It's a data-entry challenge," Elliot said. "That's a really big problem. But it's a much better problem to have than having to go to every station in person."
Q: Where can I find out more?
The Sunlight Foundation has plans to fill in the gaps in the FCC data through its Political Ad Sleuth Project. And a recent post mapped where gaps in the reporting will be for the next two years.
Q: We’ve already been inundated with political ads this summer. Is that unusual? How can I see who is behind those buys?
As mentioned above, the FCC doesn’t require that stations upload files for ad buys placed before Aug. 2.
The old-fashioned, shoe-leather method is still available. Any interested party can go to a station’s headquarters and request to see the paper file.
Or let WRAL do the work for you. We’ll be reporting on political spending this summer and as the campaign season heats up again in the fall. Look for the first of those reports next week.