FCC Requires TV Stations to Put Political Ad Files Online

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) voted today to require major commercial TV stations to post online public files and political advertising files that detail crucial information on the campaign advertisements they air.

Media reform advocates are cheering the new rule, which comes as Super PACs and campaign groups are expected to spend record amounts of money on television ads to influence upcoming national elections.

The files have been publicly available for years, but most stations only keep hard copies at physical offices. Until now, reporters and activists seeking information on political advertising have had to show up in person, request the files and even pay copying fees.

Media reformers and transparency advocates are not completely satisfied with the new rule because only stations run by the top four broadcasting companies – ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox – and operating in the nation’s top 50 markets must comply in the coming weeks. The remaining stations are expected to comply by July 2014, temporarily exempting stations in 160 markets, including markets in key swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania where political ad spending is expected to be high. Check out a map of exempted markets here.

“While the FCC’s decision does not go as far as we would wish, it greatly increases transparency, and the public will be better off as a result,” said Andrew Schwartzman, policy director of the Media Access Project.

Despite a record of promoting transparency, owners and sister companies of big corporate media outlets such as NBC News, ABC News and Fox News lobbied against the new rule.

Media executives and FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell have argued that the new rule unfairly targeted broadcasters and would allow market competitors to glean sensitive pricing information.

Reform advocates, however, point out that this information is already publicly available as hard copies at stations. During an FCC hearing, Chairman Julius Genachowski argued that it is burdensome for citizens to obtain the hard copies, citing an FCC attempt to obtain political ad files from eight Baltimore stations that took 61 hours and cost $1,700 in copying fees, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

FCC commissioners voted 2-1 to approve the rule, with McDowell casting the dissenting vote.