* FCC votes to bring political ad spending online
* Broadcasters currently provide paper records of ad buys
* Broadcasters concerned about cost, protecting rates
* Some information will be available this election cycle
By Jasmin Melvin
WASHINGTON, April 27 Political advertising
contracts with U.S. broadcasters are moving from filing cabinets
in television studio basements to the Internet for all to view.
The Federal Communications Commission adopted a rule on
Friday that will force broadcasters to reveal online who is
paying for campaign ads and just how much they are shelling out.
The data, to come initially from the four biggest TV
broadcasters in the top 50 media markets, is expected to provide
insight on campaign spending wars ahead of the November
congressional and presidential elections.
"In this kind of day and age, this kind of transparency is a
no-brainer and it's something that's needed," said Mary Boyle,
spokeswoman for the Common Cause good-government group that
supports the online disclosure effort.
The FCC agreed to the rule despite warnings from
broadcasters who said the conversion will be costly and unfairly
expose their advertising rates to rivals.
Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell dissented to
portions of the order, sympathizing with the broadcasters'
TV stations have been making public records of campaign
advertising buys and other community-related issues since 1938
as part of their public interest obligation.
These records include detailed information on who paid for
political ads, key personnel of the groups buying ads, when
political ads aired and rejections of requests to buy air time.
Obtaining these files is currently a time-consuming,
labor-intensive task, requiring multiple trips to TV station
studios and money to pay for photocopies of the documents.
Going forward, these documents must now be uploaded to a
database hosted on the FCC's website, beginning 30 days after
the rule receives approval from the Office of Management and
Budget. The agency expects swift approval as the rule does not
require new disclosures, just a new format.
The four biggest broadcasters are ABC, operated by Disney Co
, CBS Corp, News Corp's Fox, and NBC,
controlled by Comcast Corp.
Smaller operators and stations in smaller markets will have
another two years to comply.
BURDEN VS TRANSPARENCY
Broadcasters unsuccessfully tried to get support on the
currently 3-member FCC panel for a compromise proposal that
would allow them to leave out specific ad rate data but
disclose the aggregate amount of political spending by buyers.
"It makes no sense for us to be put at a competitive
disadvantage when our competitors don't face those same sort of
mandates," said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of
communications for the National Association of Broadcasters.
Republican Representative Lee Terry told reporters on
Thursday that he did not think it was appropriate to put this
added burden on broadcasters. He said he has some discomfort
when a government agency gets involved in political subjects.
Public interest groups countered that access to the more
detailed data was necessary to ensure broadcasters were
following the letter of the law when it came to giving political
candidates fair pricing and equal opportunities for air time.
"If you don't have access to this data in its granular form,
there's no way to enforce it, there's no way to alert the FCC to
a violation, and there's no way to tell if they are stacking the
deck in the first place," said Free Press senior policy counsel
The increased transparency comes as political spending has
shot up in recent years, thanks to outside groups known as
"Super PACs" that can raise and spend unlimited amounts to help
politicians, as long as they do not coordinate with official
These independent "super" political action committees have
already spent nearly $104 million this campaign cycle compared
with only $26.8 million spent in the same time period during the
The FCC said it would cost as little as $80 to $400 per
station for broadcasters to begin uploading large paper files.
Democrat Anna Eshoo, who chairs the House Commerce
subcommittee on communications and technology, has thrown her
support behind the disclosure requirement and has blasted
"The idea that broadcasters say this is going to cost money
is laughable. Anyone here think that broadcasters are not going
to do well in this political season with political advertising?"
she said at a computer and technology industry forum on