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TV stations try to thwart online political-ad-buy disclosure

The FCC is considering moving these so-called “political files” online.

FCC adviser Steven Waldman

How much do you care about politicians and groups spending TV ad dollars to decide an election?

Not enough, say local station owners and executives.

The Federal Communications Commission mandates broadcasters publicly report ad buys, and even purchase requests. The disclosures — often available months before campaign finance reports, and in more detail — enable journalists and intrepid citizens to discover strategy and investigate buyers in the pre-election run-up.

The problem, in the Internet age, is this information exists only in paper form, at the stations, during business hours.

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For the second time in five years, the FCC is considering what seems eminently logical: move these so-called “political files” online. (The rules cover TV, where the bulk of the money is spent, not radio.)

The result could be a searchable database — like the Federal Election Commission’s — that vastly improves citizen analysis.

However, TV broadcasters say their profits outweigh public empowerment. In effect, they contend demand can be served by reporters — like the locals who must make the 50-mile circuit from Fox9 to KARE to WCCO to KSTP to Comcast cable.

‘A feel-good response’
If the FCC mandates online disclosure, “we’ll end up with a feel-good response that doesn’t accomplish much,” contends Rob Hubbard, the president of KSTP’s Hubbard Television.

He says the political file is a useful record; Hubbard stations even audit the listings and send campaigns refund checks were they charged more than the federally mandated “lowest unit” ad rate.

However, Hubbard adds, citizens haven’t shown much interest in inspecting the political subset of the broader “public file” that includes technical data, ownership information and public-affairs programming listings. In 2007, the then-Republican-controlled FCC exempted the political file from online expansion, citing cost-benefit. 

To Hubbard, this all adds up to a pretty skinny case for the near-instantaneous disclosure that the FCC seeks.

Asked if convenience-seeking reporters are the latest initiative’s primary beneficiaries, Hubbard — who employs more than a few journalists — replies, “That’s exactly correct.”

CBS Corp. and Fox Television — which own WCCO-TV and Fox9, respectively — echo the case in their FCC comment. Real-time disclosure is too burdensome because their salespeople already “work late into the evening” to maintain the political file at election crunch time.

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As for “average citizens”?

“Their need for the information is not immediate,” say the networks.

Journalists, the networks imply, have the time to trundle from station to station: “Reporters, we submit, are better positioned to visit a station’s public file in the course of reporting the news — which is their primary political function — than are television sales executives to perform clerical tasks unrelated to their main job, which is to sell advertising and service the needs of their clients.”

So how costly is disclosure? If the broader public file goes online, Hubbard estimates he’d need to add a full-time position at his St. Paul flagship, and perhaps a half-time position in smaller markets like Austin, Minn.

“That’s a meaningful add,” Hubbard says. “Small TV stations don’t have the margins, but the burden is the same.”

With revenue comes responsibility
Such concerns ring small to Steven Waldman, an FCC adviser who founded the religious news site Beliefnet.

“If the TV industry has figured out how to use the web to become less efficient, they will really have done something,” Waldman quips. “The starting premise seems to be that a call would come in, they’d write it down, type it into a Word document, print it out, take it to a scanner, then upload the scan.”

In reality, he says, ad reps already handle most inquiries electronically, via email, shortening the path to a database. (Public files I looked at in 2010 mostly contained email printouts.)

“I doubt it’s as expensive as they say, but putting this aside, these are news organizations,” Waldman states. “They ought to be on the side of supporting [usable disclosure], not thwarting it.”

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Local stations may contain news organizations, but they are businesses first, as Hubbard’s recent corporate contributions to electioneering “Super PACs” show.

Indeed, the networks complain that the proposed rules would hurt ad sales:

“… [R]equiring that the entire political file be placed online would have another highly negative effect — it would make sensitive price information available to a television station’s customers and competitors at the click of a mouse. This proprietary information would be available to commercial as well as political advertisers, to other local stations, and to competing advertising media such as cable operators, newspapers and web sites.”

To Waldman and other reformers, this smacks of hypocrisy. Stations get the public airwaves for free, yet reap billions — $2.7 billion in 2008, for example — from political advertisements.

In 2011, presidential candidates and Super PACs alone raised $300 million — a year before the election. Much, if not most, of the money will go to TV. Despite lowest-unit-price mandates, stations budget for revenue gains in election years.

“They are awash in money, but will not do one thing in their power to support the system,” Waldman says.

In the Columbia Journalism Review, Waldman noted disclosure is the least costly option for TV to better fulfill its debt to the public. He compared the option to requiring more public-interest programming, charging a fee for heretofore-free TV spectrum, or even auctioning the airwaves to the highest bidder.

Waldman’s approach could be seen as mirroring Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that further opened the donor floodgates yet advocated more disclosure.

Meanwhile, local broadcasters have gone backward. In mid-2010, KSTP and WCCO stopped including information about third-party groups buying ad time in state races. Federal law covers all candidates, and groups influencing national issues, but state-level issues are not covered. By 2010’s end, no local station reported such information.

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That means, citizens and reporters won’t get much ad data on highly contested 2012 Minnesota constitutional amendments like the same-sex-marriage prohibition.

Information power, and overload
Waldman does acknowledge “legitimate” implementation concerns. For example, the FCC recommends filing to its computers, but in its comment, Hubbard Broadcasting (HBI) noted that government servers are “stretched to the limit.”

Rob Hubbard says it sometimes takes a day to upload currently mandated reporting to the FCC. HBI recommends a separate, dedicated system — something Waldman says might make sense.

Hubbard bets that even if the FCC database is created, it will be so messy it will be “unusable and unsearchable.” If that’s the case, the FCC might be served just as well by allowing stations to put PDFs of ad buys and requests on their own websites, he contends.

Waldman doesn’t think a piecemeal approach is supported by most broadcasters. More importantly, it would hurt watchdog groups trying to create databases. He says empowering citizens who can build tools to analyze democracy is “how information flows on the Internet,” spurring not just interest in the political file itself, but coverage of how political money gets spent.

Hubbard Broadcasting told the FCC that if it must put political files online, it should do a one- or two-year test, then reopen the proposed rules for public comment. That could push online disclosure to the 2016 election — if it ever happens.

With an Obama appointee chairing the FCC, two of the three sitting commissioners (both Democrats) have made public statements all but supporting the move. Though two nominations for the five-member commission still await Senate confirmation, a split vote among three commissioners is enough to approve the rules. An FCC spokeswoman would not provide a timetable or sense of how the proposal is faring.