FCC Votes to Put TV Political Files Online

Rule initially only applies to ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates in top 50 markets

Just in time for the election, the Federal Communications Commission showed its political colors and ordered television stations to put their political TV advertising files online.

The vote on Friday morning was strictly along party lines with the two Democratic commissioners, chairman Julius Genachowski and Mignon Clyburn, in favor of the order, and Republican Robert McDowell opposed.

The rule requires TV stations to put in electronic form two sets of files—what is known as the public file and the political advertising file. Those documents have historically been stored at the stations, making it inconvenient for those who want to see them. The controversy was over the political ad files; all three commissioners voted in favor of putting the public files online. 

“For decades, the files have been public more in theory than in practice,” said Bill Lake, head of the FCC’s media bureau.

The vote didn't surprise anyone, although broadcasters opposed the new rule for political files—particularly disclosing ad rates online—and tried for a compromise up to the last minute.

Broadcasters did get a small compromise. The rule for the next two years will only apply to ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates in the top 50 markets, stations that will get the lion’s share of the more than $3 billion forecast to hit spot TV in the 2012 election. Other stations will be required to put the files online on July 1, 2014. The commission also agreed to examine the impact of putting ad rates online a year from now.

Without a cost-benefit analysis, dissenter McDowell agreed with broadcasters that putting the ad rates online “may cause market distortion and price signaling which could lead to rates mysteriously rising in some markets. By forcing broadcasters to do what would otherwise be illegal is simply surreal.”

Genachowski ripped into broadcasters’ arguments.

“The question is not why require political disclosure of files online, but why adopt a special exemption from online disclosure for the political file,” Genachowski said. “Congress explicitly requires broadcasters to disclose information to the public, broadcasters already do, and clients and broadcasters already have access to this information. Who can be against mom, apple pie and the way of American transparency.”

For a while it looked like Clyburn might be a swing vote since she indicated on a panel at the National Association of Broadcasters conference that she remained "open to engagement." But in the end, Clyburn voted with Genachowski. GOP opposition came too little too late.

Genachowski took a few hits before the House Appropriations Committee and just this week, three GOP members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee criticized him for failing to "adequately assess the costs or burdens association with the proposal."

The files will not reveal the donors behind the ads, nor will they cover markets in swing states, such as Virginia, Missouri, Wisconsin and Michigan. The rule also leaves out Hispanic TV stations, many of which have the No. 1-rated newscast in markets like Los Angeles, New York and Houston.

In the 50 markets, however, it will tell interested citizens and groups who purchased the ad and for how much, along with the executives of the political action committee or campaign and the board of directors.

"Knowing the identities of the executives, which communities are getting targeted with ads, which third-party ads have been denied advertising—that's kind of interesting to know," said Corie Wright, a senior policy advisor with Free Press, one of the public interest groups supporting the order. "Ultimately there should be parity on all platforms."