FEC: You Pay, You Say

Quick-hit TV and radio political spots must still carry a spoken sponsorship identification, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruled last week in a decision partisans say could keep some dollars from flowing to broadcast coffers.

In its first substantive opinion since seating a full complement of six commissioners, the FEC concluded that even 10- and 15-second TV and radio ads for or against federal candidates must include a spoken disclaimer at the end identifying the group responsible for the ad.

The Club For Growth PAC last fall had sought an exemption for the short ads or at least the ability to truncate the so-called "stand-by-your-ad" statements. But the commissioners ruled there was no wiggle room in the law.

"We were hoping to use these forms of ads, as were other nonprofit groups and other [Political Action Committees], but with this decision nobody is going to do it because it is impractical," said David Keating, executive director of the Club For Growth.

The Club has bought longer ads targeting particular races. In May, it spent $250,000 on local TV in Tennessee, West Virginia and North Carolina. But don't look for the shorter ads.

"Not if they are expressing advocacy or electioneering communications, because you have to air these stupid disclaimers that sound like gobbledygook and take up four seconds out of the ad," Keating told B&C. "We might redeploy our resources, but I have talked to a lot of nonprofit groups and they just don't do TV advertising because they can't afford it. If they could do 10- and 15-second spots, I think they could have afforded it."

In denying the exemption, the FEC commissioners cited congressional intent: "It did not create an exemption for television communications of 10 or 15 seconds or any other duration, even though it was aware of the commission's already-existing regulatory exceptions for 'impracticality' [such as skywriting] and 'small items' [like pins or buttons]."

Three of the six commissioners said that was not the outcome they would have preferred, but that the law was clear for broadcast ads, according to a source at the meeting.

Despite the commissioners' reluctance, Keating said the club is not likely to challenge the decision in court.

The order was originally drafted last January, but had to wait for action because until a few weeks ago the FEC had only two commissioners. A quorum of four is needed for a vote.

The Campaign Legal Center, which opposed the exemption, saw the decision as a signal that the new FEC commissioners were ready to enforce the law even if they disagreed with it.

"Given the agency's spotty record for enforcing federal campaign finance statutes," said the center in a statement, "the Campaign Legal Center is encouraged by the fact that the newly reconstituted commission did the right thing today by applying the statute as written."

John Eggerton

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.