Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski got an earful Monday from GOP members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee over the agency's proposal to require TV stations disclose online the buyers of political ads and how much they spent.
Currently, political advertising data is kept in paper form stuffed in file cabinets at each TV station. An FCC proposal would move a TV station's entire public file, including political advertising information, online.
The FCC proposal comes just as TV stations are preparing for one of the biggest political advertising windfalls ever, which could add up to more than $3 billion this year, per various estimates.
But broadcasters have balked at the new requirement for political advertising, and today the GOP took up their arguments one by one.
Implying that the FCC's interest in the move might be more political than practical, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), chair of the Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, asked Genachowski: "Why do you care about this? You have more important things to worry about. Why in the world is this a big priority?"
Genachowski explained that the idea was part of a broader rulemaking proposal to move TV stations' public disclosure files online. "Across the board, the FCC has been looking to move from paper to digital," Genachowski said.
The broadcaster arguments were echoed by commissioner Robert McDowell, the sole Republican on the commission who warned of "unintended consequences" of a proposal that he said was more FCC "mission creep" that might better be served by the Federal Election Commission.
"Transparency is a laudable goal, but the contents of the political file do not speak to whether a TV station is serving the community," McDowell said, adding that the requirement could cost an individual station as much as $140,000 a year, hurting stations that by and large are small businesses.
The rule would also only apply to TV stations, putting them in an awkward competitive position compared to radio, cable and other media outlets in the market.
"While the original goal of such disclosure may have been to create more transparency in the political spending process, the unintended consequence could be to encourage price signaling and other anti-competitive conduct by broadcasters that could produce harmful market distortions," McDowell said.
Democrats supported the measure. "We should know who is paying for political ads," said subcommittee ranking member Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.).