FCC Ruling Requires TV Stations to Post Political-Ad Buys on Web

Broadcasters Worry Publicized Rates Will Hurt Business

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U.S. TV broadcasters must disclose details on a public website of political-advertising purchases, including rates paid, under rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission.

The requirement will apply initially to 200 stations that are affiliates of the four largest U.S. networks, the FCC decided today in a 2-1 vote, with the agency's lone Republican saying he objected to posting rates paid for individual ads. The mandate was part of a broader disclosure requirement that passed 3-0.

But fans of open government offer only faint praise for the ruling. Nonprofit ProPublica, for example, points out that "the data will not be searchable or uploaded in a common format."

"Our hope and expectation is it will take effect during this election," William Lake, the FCC's media bureau chief, said at a press conference in Washington.

The rule will take effect for the 200 stations 30 days after it's approved by the Office of Management and Budget, said Mr. Lake. It will become effective for the other 1,800 U.S. broadcast stations in two years.

Broadcast stations keep records of political ads on paper at their offices, where they are open to public inspection. Today's vote requires the records to made available on a website to be run by the FCC.

The new rule covers about 60% of all expected 2012 political advertising purchased locally or regionally, where the most televised political ads air, according to a note by Ken Goldstein and Elizabeth Wilner of Kantar Media's CMAG, which tracks election spending.

"The question in front of us is whether, in the 21st century, 'available for public inspection' means stuck in office filing cabinets or available online," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, a Democrat. "Or as one person put it, 'Who can be against Mom, apple pie and the American way of transparency?'"

Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell said he agrees with more disclosure without posting "commercially sensitive" information.

"Posting rate information online may cause market distortions, including price signaling, which can lead to rates' mysteriously rising in some markets," Mr. McDowell said.

Stations must offer campaign advertisements low rates, and broadcasters are concerned that buyers of nonpolitical ads will be able to see cheaper rates online and demand the same, Mr. Goldstein and Ms. Wilner said.

Buys for 45% of presidential campaign ads would have been disclosed online if the FCC's requirement had gone into effect on this date in 2008, Mr. Goldstein and Ms. Wilner said. The others were made in smaller markets, where stations wouldn't have had to post the buys online, they said.

In an e-mailed statement, the National Association of Broadcasters said it disagreed with the FCC's move.

"By forcing broadcasters to be the only medium to disclose on the internet our political advertising rates, the FCC jeopardizes the competitive standing of stations," said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the Washington-based trade group. Members include the Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, News Corp.'s Fox, Comcast Corp.'s NBC and CBS Corp.

Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, praised the rule. "The American people have a right to know how the public airwaves are being used," he said in an e-mailed statement.

--Bloomberg News

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