They aren't happy about it, but television broadcasters in Pittsburgh and other large media markets will soon have to put political advertising details online instead of in filing cabinets.
The move is a large but limited victory for open-government advocates in a period where such ads, many of them funded anonymously, are both booming and difficult to track. If the ruling stands, only the top 50 television markets will be required to comply in the short term, and the records will not be in an easily searchable format.
The Federal Communications Commission board ruled 2-1 recently to require network television stations to upload information on who bought political ads, when, how much they cost and other details. The data is already required to be public, but is only stored on paper at station offices, often in stuffed manila envelopes or three-ring binders.
The ruling comes during changing times for political advertising, with unlimited outside spending allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, and in a presidential election year where Pennsylvania airwaves will be filled with political messages.
Political ads seeking to directly elect or defeat candidates have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission, but the less overtly political "issue ad" spending allowed by nonprofits is far less regulated. The nonprofits do not have to disclose their donors and have come to dominate the air war. They spent some $28.5 million in the first four months of this year, most of it targeting President Barack Obama, according to a Washington Post study.
The little-known paper files tucked away at the nation's TV stations are one of the only glimpses inside them.
"The only way we're going to know who some of the people are behind them is to go to the files," said Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation's reporting group, "and physically do the old-fashioned, shoe-leather legwork."
That places broadcasters, all of which report news but also make a killing on advertising, in an awkward position. They say they have no problem sharing the information on who bought their ads and when -- in exchange for using public airwaves they have made their paper "public files" available since 1965.
But they say it is unfair to force them to make their ad rates easy for ad buyers and competitors to access, when online or print media are not forced to do so. Stations are required to offer their lowest ad rates to political campaigns in a period close to elections, but that low rate changes from station to station. There are no limits on what they charge nonprofits.
"The issue is really about political rates being exposed and losing the competitive advantage. No other media have to put their rate online by force from the government," said Ray Carter, vice president and general manager of WPXI-TV. "In essence that's what we're being asked to do, and it's a terrible disservice to TV stations who do their best to service communities."
The FCC order only covers ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates and not cable stations. The four broadcast stations in the Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Harrisburg markets will be affected, but those in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Johnstown/Altoona and Erie will have another two years to comply. Until then, those in smaller markets seeking to track ad spending will have to keep visiting their hometown stations to pore over paper files.
Campaigns, media tracking services and reporters have long used the paper files to watch ad spending, but the process is not easy, requiring travel to stations during business hours, dealing with security and paying copying costs.
Groups such as the League of Women Voters, ProPublica and Sunlight -- which advocates for greater political disclosure -- have lately led efforts in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to send out an army of volunteers to collect and track the data. In a similar move, Columbia Journalism Review last month tracked all $1.1 million of the advertising spending in Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Easton in the state's 17th District congressional primary between incumbent U.S. Rep. Tim Holden and fellow Democrat Matt Cartwright.
Aided by spending by outside groups, Mr. Cartwright won the April 24 primary 57-43 percent, which was nearly his margin in advertising spending, wrote CJR's Ken Knelly.
Much of that spending could not be tracked in the short term under the FCC's ruling. Pittsburgh and the state's two other top markets will likely have to comply at some point this summer or fall. The ruling is subject to a 30-day review period and then goes to the Office of Management and Budget for approval, after which stations in the top 50 markets have another 30 days to comply. Even when the stations do so, the records will likely be in PDF form, which is not easily searchable.
Sunlight plans to build a searchable database itself and keep looking for volunteers to collect data, Ms. Kiely said.
The top 50 markets are expected to air about 60 percent of the nation's local political advertising this year, or $1.8 billion of the $3 billion estimated nationwide by political media trackers Kantar Media.
Stations worry how they will comply with uploading the paperwork, especially in a general election season where untold millions of dollars will be booked statewide. "We're going to have to drop everything to upload the public file because the FCC says so," said WTAE-TV's national sales manager Brian Raughter. "When you're trying to get all these things done, something's got to give."
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