How much does a political ad cost? New FCC ruling will help us figure it out

How much does it actually cost to run a political ad on television? We’re about to find out. Until Friday [April 27, 2012], the only way to learn how much a candidate was spending on tv ads was to go to a local television station and request to see something known as the “public files.”  But a new ruling by the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] is changing that process and making the information more accessible to everyone. Under the new ruling, local television stations will be required to post detailed information about political advertising, including the cost of specific commercials, on their websites.

The rule will go into effect 30 days after it’s approved by the Office of Management and Budget, meaning that the public will get at least some information before the November 2012 election. This year, the rule applies only to local affiliates of the top four tv networks–ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC–in the top 50 markets. That’s about 200 stations. Other stations–of which there are about 1,800–will have to comply in two years.

According to Ad Age, the new rule covers about 60% of all expected 2012 political advertising purchased locally or regionally.  Ad buys for 45% of presidential campaign ads would have been disclosed online if the FCC’s new requirement had gone into effect in April 2008.

The ruling is a first,  representing a significant step toward transparency in political campaigns. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has been pushing hard for it since his appointment by President Obama in 2009. Genachowski has been quoted as saying: “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.”

Love it, somewhat

Campaign finance watchdogs and open-government organizations like the principle behind the new rule, but also point out its limitations.

Think Progress says:”While this additional transparency will not allow citizens to know who is funding shady independent ads, it will at least allow them to track where the spending is going and how much is being spent for each airtime purchase.

The Sunlight Foundation says that the new rule “could provide a crucial source of information about the shadowy groups that can now spend unlimited sums to advocate for or against political candidates without having to register with the FEC.”

But, Sunlight continues,

The proposed rule would also exempt 160 of the country’s 210 television markets, including some in battleground states larley to be targeted for major political ad blitzes…No Spanish language stations would be included in a year when the Hispanic vote is a key demographic likely to be targeted by both parties. …Large areas of some swing states, like Virginia, Missouri, Wisconsin and Michigan, could see an influx of advertising in markets outside of the top 50. One state that’s likely to be a key battleground–Iowa–doesn’t have any media that would make the reporting cut.

Hate it, a lot

TV stations don’t like the rule at all. Lobbyists for the broadcasting industry–as well as executives from heavy hitters like Disney, NBC, ABC, Fox News, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and dozens of local TV news outlets–applied intense pressure on FCC commissioners to vote against the new rule.  They argued that posting ad-buy information would allow “competitors in the market and commercials advertisers to anonymously glean highly sensitive pricing data.”

They lost that argument: The FCC commissioners voted 2-1 in favor of the new rule.

But, having lost that argument–at least for now–broadcasters also tried to water down the reporting mechanism, arguing that ad-buy data should be posted only on local affiliates’ websites, not on a centralized FCC database–and only in PDF form, so that the information cannot be aggregated.

There’s no shortage of irony here. ProPublica puts it this way:

News organizations cultivate a reputation for demanding transparency, whether by suing for access to government documents, dispatching camera crews to the doorsteps of recalcitrant politicians, or editorializing in favor of open government.

Along with the ads themselves, this new FCC ruling bears watching.