Network Affils: FCC Political Ad 'Clarification' Is Failure on All Counts

Add the major network affiliate associations to the list of those supporting the National Association of Broadcasters petition to the FCC to clarify its "clarification" of political ad reporting rules, an FCC action they called a failure on all counts. 

Related: FCC Clarifies Political Ad Disclosures 

The National Association of Broadcasters joined with Hearst Television, Graham Media Group, Nexstar, Fox, Tegna and Scripps to ask the FCC to narrow its definition of non-candidate ads on “any political matter of national importance" (i.e. "issue" ads) and the disclosure obligations on broadcasters to identify the issues in those ads.  

In a filing in support of the NAB petition (after the FCC asked stakeholders to weigh in, the ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliate associations, collectively representing over 500 TV stations, used terms like "onerous" and "perverse" for what they saw as the need to overreport to make sure they don't run afoul of the FCC's vague and overly broad disclosure requirements. 

With hundreds of thousands of political ads likely to air in the run-up to the 2020 election, they said, the FCC action could not come at a worse time. "[T]he Commission’s recent orders purporting to clarify television stations’ political advertising record-keeping and reporting responsibilities will make complying with the Rules more uncertain, complicated, time consuming, and costly," they told the FCC. 

The result: "Broadcasters’ only rational response to the uncertainties generated by the Commission’s recent “guidance” will be to over-report everything," they said, drowning viewers in often useless information.   

At an NYC Television Week panel in New York last month, Kantar’s Campaign Media Analysis Group VP and general manager Steven Passwaiter said he expected the broadcast, cable and digital take from the 2020 election cycle to be a “relatively mind-blowing” $5.7 billion, with local TV expected to be the biggest beneficiary by far. 

Broadcasters want to narrow and clarify the interpretation of “issue of national importance” by specifying that the term applies only to national political actors in a position to take nationwide action. 

They also want the FCC to eliminate the mandate that stations identify all political matters of national importance referenced in each ad, and instead only require them to make a “reasonable, good faith” effort to disclose topics that are the “focus” of the ad. They also want the freedom to use their own judgment about when using an acronym rather than spelling out the name in the disclosures that are required. 

That is one of the reasons why broadcasters want the FCC to loosen up when it comes to the reporting requirements for political ads, rules they said could lead to them having to turn down political ad dollars. 

The reporting obligation stems from the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, but the FCC has discretion in how it interprets the requirements in its rules implementing that law. Broadcasters argue that the FCC’s rules as " clarified," could lead to them turning down campaign ads due to the threat of sanction if they fail to identify an issue. 

Cable operators, who are also subject to political ad disclosure requirements, are backing the NAB petition.

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.