Broadcasters balk at FCC plan for online political ad disclosure

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Every election year, politicians spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying commercials. It’s a big part of their election-year bottom line.

‘It may not be good for the country but it’s going to be good for CBS,’ joked CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves during an investors’ conference last fall.

It’s no secret how much politicians spend on advertising. Television stations are required to not only keep records on every commercial bought by a candidate, but that information is also available to the public. The only catch is that anyone interested in seeing the stats has to visit a TV station and ask to look at the public file to get access to how much money a local station is getting in election dollars.

On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote on whether to require TV stations to put that same information on their websites. While it may not seem like a big deal to take already public files and put them online, the broadcasters are not happy.


The issue is not putting what a candidate spent on commercials online. But broadcasters are concerned about listing what specific commercials on specific shows cost. Even though by law candidates get the lowest rate available for commercials in the weeks leading up to an election, broadcasters worry that other advertisers could use that information to leverage their own negotiations.

‘One poker player would, in effect, have had at least a partial glance at the other’s hand,’ broadcast networks CBS, NBC, ABC Fox and Univision wrote in comments filed jointly at the FCC.

There is also fear that one station could learn what another is charging and then undercut its rates with advertisers. On top of that, broadcasters think it is unfair that political advertising on cable is not required to be disclosed. That, too, may change down the road, Washington insiders say.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has a different opinion. In a speech at the National Assn. of Broadcasters convention last week, he said broadcasters resisting the commission’s proposals, are ‘against technology, against transparency and against journalism.’

Media watchdogs and academics also think the broadcasters are overreacting. Andrew Schwartzman, senior vice president of the Media Access Project, said it is ironic that ‘broadcasters, who as journalists advocate for freedom of information laws, now want secrecy when it comes to their own operations.’

For more on the debate, please see the story in Thursday’s Los Angeles Times.


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-- Joe Flint