FCC’s Proposed Election Ad Disclosure Rule Draws NAB Ire

Published January 2, 2012

With the 2012 election cycle expected to set campaign spending records, the Federal Communications Commission is proposing to require television stations to post online information about who is behind those ads. The National Association of Broadcasters has expressed concerns to the FCC that the new proposal would be burdensome.

In a press release, the FCC said its proposal is an effort to increase transparency. Documents would have to be submitted to an online public file hosted by the FCC. The proposal replaces a decades-old requirement that TV stations maintain paper files for public inspection at their main studio.

The NAB estimates the FCC proposal for online posting requirements would create an increased burden of 21.5 hours of employee time per station per week. The NAB said the FCC’s estimate of only 2.1 hours per station per week is “radically understated.”

According to the NAB, the FCC rules would require each television station to compile and provide “detailed information” regarding each program segment aired in addition to how the TV station “determined the programming needs of its community” and “designed responsive programming.”

Little Time or Resources
Lisa Rosenberg, a lobbyist for the Sunlight Foundation—a nonprofit that uses the Internet to advocate for greater government transparency— favors the FCC proposal.

“A searchable FCC database of ad buys … would allow for reuse of the data and in-depth analysis by local journalists, scholars, and others who could analyze whether the ad money being spent on races in Kansas is coming from New York, whether more money is being spent by outside groups than the candidates themselves, and where races are heating up as determined by spending,” Rosenberg wrote in her Oct. 27 blog.

‘Suppress Freedom of Speech’
“The NAB believes that developing a system of uploading, organizing, and ensuring timely online access to the political file presents a significant challenge,” NAB Senior Deputy General Counsel Jerianne Timmerman wrote in a letter to the FCC.

The NAB came to that conclusion after it worked with some TV stations to gather the information required for a one-week test period.

NAB also raised concerns the political file must be frequently updated during periods close to elections, when TV news stations are already very hectic.

Timmerman wrote the NAB was also concerned about the “potential burdens” on licenses and First Amendment issues that could be raised by the proposed FCC regulations.

“We cited the complexity of the legal issues raised by such proposals, the significant fact-gathering required to craft a reporting mechanism that is not unduly burdensome for broadcast licensees, and the need to analyze what form of reporting would be likely to yield public interest benefits,” Timmerman wrote.

Sam Karnick, research director at The Heartland Institute, which publishes InfoTech & Telecom News, says the proposed rules are not only intrusive, but “a blatant backdoor attempt to suppress freedom of speech.”

Tom Gantert ([email protected]) is senior capitol correspondent for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan.