Price Check for Cable Campaign Ads on Menu at FCC

WASHINGTON — It won’t take effect until at least the next federal election cycle, but cable operators — as well as satellite-TV providers and satellite and broadcast radio stations — will have to start uploading their public files, including records of all political ad buys and their prices, to a national database administered by the Federal Communications Commission.

That’s if a proposal circulated last week by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is approved by the other commissioners.

Actually, the FCC has proposed that all of those outlets post all their public files to the FCC-hosted public database, just as TV broadcasters have had to do since this July.

The agency’s database has received millions of hits, so cable operators now face the prospect of campaign-finance reformers closely monitoring their ad buys to make sure they identify the source of the political dollars, according to FCC officials.

TV broadcasters already have to file records of political ad buys to a searchable, FCC-hosted database. The FCC, though, has held off on extending that requirement — and other public file requirements, like Equal Employment Opportunity, children’s TV and more — to cable and satellite operators, which are all currently required to keep those files available locally for public inspection.

An FCC official speaking on background said the item tentatively concludes that the requirement should be phased in, as it was for TV stations.

A timetable has not been proposed for that phase-in, but the idea would be to have the larger entities go first, followed by smaller ones, and perhaps have some cut-off below which the requirement was waived.

As with the TV-station online requirement, the FCC is not expanding the public-file reporting requirement, but simply asking the outlets to put the same information online. Cable operators had asked that the FCC consider contracting some of those requirements — channel numbers and headend locations — before requiring the online filing, and the NPRM asked whether that should be the case.

Asked if the public-file requirement would be applied to linear, over-the-top video providers if the FCC redefines them as MVPDs, the official said no.

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.