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For FCC, File This Under ‘Political’ Decision

Smaller-market broadcasters across the country will be required to put their political files online by midyear—unless the FCC rethinks its political file online posting requirements. But public interest groups are trying to make sure this nationwide database becomes policy reality for all stations and is made even more searchable.

Political files contain information—including prices—about political ad buys and who is making them. Stations have always been required to both keep the records and also make them available to the public when requested. But the FCC decided that new technology could and should help move the files out of the drawer and onto the Web.

New FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s nomination was held up for months over political ad disclosures in another context, on-air disclosures of funding. That hold was lifted after Wheeler apparently assured Sen. Ted Cruz (RTexas) that using the FCC’s powers to require more detailed disclosure—not only of PACs and other groups paying for political ads, but the underlying funders—was not a priority.

But what will have to be a priority now is wrapping up a review of the FCC’s “test” of requiring TV stations to put their political files online in a searchable database.

Starting in August 2012, affiliates of the Big Four networks in the top 50 markets had to submit that information to the FCC.

In meetings with a top Wheeler aide last month, members of the Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition, which includes Free Press and Common Cause, pushed the FCC to extend the requirement to all TV stations, which is the plan unless the FCC finds reason to rethink that.

A Fair Play?

State broadcast associations, in a filing at the commission, told the FCC it should delay the July 1, 2014 date to extend the reporting requirement to all stations, calling it unfair that the same obligation was not put on their cable and satellite operators. In fact, the broadcast groups say the FCC should lift the requirement on the top 50 market stations in the interests of “fundamental fairness.”

The advocacy groups also want the FCC to step up enforcement of the online filing rule, saying there have been instances of incomplete information, and they want the FCC to put the records in a searchable database, rather than simply requiring that PDF files be uploaded.

The National Association of Broadcasters says the advocacy groups are trying to shift the burden of research from themselves to station personnel, who would have to key in the data manually or fill out a new set of forms.

Broadcasters argue there is plenty of reason to rethink the requirement. “The commission should reject proposals to impose standardization requirements that are unmoored from the political file’s intended purpose and that are designed to conscript station personnel to serve as advocacy group research assistants,” broadcasters told the FCC.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.