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Reform Groups Eye Cable Political Ads

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission is getting pressure from campaignfinance reform groups to start requiring cable and satellite operators to put their political files in the agency’s searchable database.

The attention is tacit recognition of cable’s growing share of the political ad pie (see chart), driven in part by the influx of outside group money those reformers are trying to better identify by seeking enhanced disclosure.

That pressure almost certainly comes too late to affect the current midterm election, but that hasn’t stopped such groups as the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation from trying to goose the FCC into action.

Cable operators and satellite providers are required to keep copies of their political ad contracts, including prices, in a local public file for everyone to see, just as broadcasters are. But two years ago, when the FCC decided it was in the public interest to make those TVstation files accessible, it chose not to apply the rules to cable and satellite, suggesting broadcasters were first, but not necessarily last.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler declined to comment on whether extending the requirement to cable or satellite is on his radar screen, but the commission did put a petition on doing so out for comment last week, also asking if radio should be included.

The short answer of why cable and satellite could not be included in the TV political file database rule when it was adopted is that the FCC never put them on notice that they could be included.

“The technical reason is that it wasn’t noticed, so they could not adopt a rule when they adopted the TV rule,” a broadcast attorney speaking not for attribution said.

The FCC confirmed that was the reason. But that does not explain why it chose not to include cable operators in the first place or why the agency has not taken any action since, the attorney said.

Certainly, broadcasters made it clear they thought it was not fair that their MVPD competition did not have to put sensitive price information in a national database available for examination and search.

The attorney offers a couple of reasons: “The amount of cable-origination political ads is so much less than on TV that the so-called public interest groups don’t care,” he said. Or at least didn’t care until a couple of weeks ago.

Actually, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) called for cable and satellite to be added to the disclosure rules in 2012, but nothing came of it. Her office had not returned calls at press time about whether she would renew that call.

Another option is that neither then-FCC chairman Julius Genachowski nor the current chairman, Wheeler, was interested in imposing the regulations on cable operators. Genachowski certainly wasn’t hammering cable operators during his tenure, beyond forcing them to the table on net neutrality.

Wheeler was warned by Senate Republicans to steer clear of political files when it came to enhanced disclosure. However, has not proven timid about regulating, or threatening to regulate.