In Depth

FCC's New Political Ad Disclosure Plan Has Broadcasters Concerned -- Planned Website Would List Who's Behind an Ad, How Much They Paid for It

By Ana Radelat
Advertising Age

Just as a banner season for political advertising is starting, the Obama administration has thrown broadcasters a curveball -- and broadcasters are hustling to figure out what it might mean in terms of costs and implications.

The Federal Communications Commission has proposed requiring television stations to post online information about their political advertisers.

That information, currently kept in paper files at the stations, includes the names of candidates or groups requesting to run an ad, the reason for broadcasting the ad, the time and placement of the ad and its cost.

Moving that information online to a website that would be run by the FCC has provoked concern from the National Association of Broadcasters.

"The political file must be very frequently updated, particularly during the periods close to local, state and federal elections," said a recent letter by a NAB attorney to the FCC. "Developing a system of uploading, organizing, and ensuring timely online access to the political file presents a significant challenge."

The move was approved by FCC commissioners last week and the new proposal is expected to be printed in the Federal Register soon, perhaps as early as this week, at which time there will be 30 days for public comment aimed at influencing the final regulations.

NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said his organization is still reviewing the FCC's plan.

"But we're going to be full participants in the proceedings," he said.

State broadcast groups have estimated the cost of meeting the new requirements would be $24 million in the first year and $14 million each year after that and have asked the FCC to pay those costs.

Providing easy access to advertising information may also affect ad rates, the tone of some campaign commercials and candidate response times.

The FCC hopes to implement the changes by early next spring.

Jack Poor, VP-marketing at the Television Bureau of Advertising, said he is still awaiting reaction from his organization's broadcast members but, he said, "I'm guessing that they don't want to do it."

Jerry Britton, a Washington D. C.-based attorney who represents broadcasters, said the posting of advertising information online will make it easier for candidates to find out what their competition is doing and what rates they are paying.

The FCC's action comes amid rising concerns about political spending by groups whose funding sources are sometimes undisclosed. It also comes after the Supreme Court allowed unlimited spending on political advertising by corporations and unions in its Citizens United ruling last year.

Group seeking more transparency in political advertising hailed the FCC's move.

"The FCC is just trying to bring broadcasters into the 21st Century," said Corie Wright, an attorney for Free Press, a media reform group, adding that making information about their ad buys may make bring added scrutiny to independent political groups next year.

"But I don't think it's going to stem the flow of cash going to broadcasters," she said.

Lawmakers who have failed to press Congress to approve laws requiring greater disclosure of these groups also back the FCC's efforts.

"In an age of secretive political spending by unregulated outside groups like super PACs, consumers deserve to know who is using the public airwaves, and for what purpose," said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., "Burying that information in an out-of-the-way filing cabinet doesn't meet the high standard the public deserves."