Journalism in the Public Interest

Broadcasters Are ‘Against Transparency,’ Says FCC Chairman

Julius Genachowski criticizes TV stations for trying to keep political ad data off the Internet.

Television stations, which have been fighting a government proposal to make political ad data more accessible, came in for some harsh criticism yesterday at their annual trade show in Las Vegas. In a keynote speech Monday afternoon at the National Association of Broadcasters convention, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski unleashed on the industry.

“[S]ome in the broadcast industry have elected to position themselves against technology, against transparency and against journalism,” said Genachowski, who favors the proposed rule, which would create an FCC website for political ad data.

The data is already public but kept only on paper at TV stations. (That’s why ProPublica has launched Free the Files. We’re inviting volunteers to visit the stations and help collect the data so anybody can see it. The data can provide information not available through traditional campaign finance filings.)

As we’ve previously reported, the National Association of Broadcasters, led by former Sen. Gordon Smith, has been lobbying the FCC to water down the proposed rule requiring stations to post the data. The commission will vote on it April 27.

Genachowski criticized television stations for opposing the transparency measure despite the “proud history of broadcast journalism.”

Genachowski also answered broadcasters’ objections point by point. Here’s the key portion of his speech:

The arguments, made in the public record, shouldn’t go unanswered.

First, cost. The argument is that meeting existing disclosure obligations online instead of on paper would be a heavy financial burden and indeed a “jobs destroyer.” But the facts demonstrate the unsurprising conclusion that the cost of online disclosure is nominal and that, indeed, once the transition from paper to digital is complete, it will save money — save money for broadcasters and for other stakeholders: including political candidates, journalists and the public at large.

It’s also noteworthy that any disclosure costs tied to putting the political file online relate directly to political advertising revenue received by broadcasters, which is estimated to be in the $3 billion range this year, up by large amounts over past years.

Another argument that’s been made: This isn’t an FCC issue. That argument is refuted by the plain language of the law. Congress explicitly requires broadcasters to “maintain, and make available for public inspection, a complete record of a request to purchase broadcast time that is made by or on behalf of a legally qualified candidate, etc.”

Congress placed this requirement in the Communications Act, and explicitly charged the FCC with the obligation to carry out these provisions. It gave both the FEC and the FCC roles, understanding the unique role broadcasters play and that some of the information Congress requires broadcasters to make public is never provided to the FEC, and what is provided is sent weeks or months later. The FCC’s role here is clear, essential and very longstanding.

Another objection is that the disclosed information is “proprietary,” particularly the rates broadcasters charge for political advertising. But, one, Congress explicitly requires broadcasters to disclose this information, and, two, broadcasters already do.

In other words, the argument against moving the public file online is that required broadcaster disclosures shouldn’t be too public. But in a world where everything is going digital, why have a special exemption for broadcasters’ political disclosure obligation?

Of course they are against transparency.  Being forced to disclose their political advertisers will affect their bottom line, their profits.

Also since they, themselves are corporations and they advertise themselves and their own interests, they are doubly against disclosure.

But, all of these are against the public interests.  Against educating the public about the real issues.  The plan is to keep the public in the dark.




Views of the ownership often pressure not only programming, but also political slants of who, and what, gets aired. Information on who is behind political ads they air may be just too much disclosure for them to bear.

If you read the story, the FCC chairman said “some broadcasters,” not “broadcasters.” Please correct your headline.

J. Steven Livacich

April 17, 2012, 6:30 p.m.

ALL Broadcasters MUST post all political data online and on paper permanently as a matter of course.  Public access Must be immediate and complete for the laws to work. That is the meaning of transparent. Those that do not completely reply to such a request Must lose or have Suspended their privileges. JSL

Well, it’s not related to the stonewalling, but this is an interesting and unpleasant twist:

I’m curious:  What rates will they pay, given that there’s no other advertising on public television to set the rate?

Craig Schumacher

April 20, 2012, 11:59 a.m.

Slowly by degrees the curtains of global corruption are being spread open. I’m just surprised how someone with obvious integrity made it up the ladder that far?

If you are in the business of charging for your services, imagine if YOU had to show the world the absolute-worst rates you’ve quoted for your services.  It’s asinine.

“Hello…I just saw a TIAACREF ad on your website.  You will now have a (unfunded) government mandate to tell EVERY ADVERTISER EXACTLY how much they paid for it.  Actually, you must now post your lowest rates for each ad location online, so anybody who wanted to could just google it.  And if you screw it up, they’ll fine your site to oblivion.” 

Look, if the public wanted to know that broadcasters are in compliance, the public would be making copies of the public file…not just advertising agencies and our competitors.  Forcing broadcasters to put company proprietary data on-line for anyone to see how their rates compare to “lowest unit rate” simply puts too much on the world wide web.

Cmon, get real about what broadcasters are being mandated to do.  Obviously, a broadcast license comes with responsibilities—but in this one’s eyes, it’s opening up the kimono too much, too easily.

Charlie, an alternative view is that it’s time for the broadcasters to “get real.”  If you can’t survive without your customers knowing your pricing—if your business revolves around explicitly scamming your customers—then you shouldn’t be in business.  You certainly shouldn’t have the government supporting your archaic business model.

That’s not the outcome I want.  I want broadcast television to survive.  It breaks my heart a little every time I tune in and see three station identifications in a row or a programming lineup of the absolute cheapest crap possible (or news shows that read me corporate press releases and show me YouTube videos, too, since I’m ranting).

Evolving will ensure survival.  Clinging to a business model developed fifty years ago (replacing show sponsorship) won’t, and certainly hasn’t helped the industry compete against cable networks or the Internet.  And right now (and for the foreseeable future), the companies that do best pull the curtain aside and make us part of the family.

I don’t mean that in a “we’ll read your comment on the air” kind of way, I mean it in terms of trust.  Many of us—even if we never advertise a thing—already know your lowest rates (either by looking them up at the studio or just calling at the last minute and negotiating as far down as possible).  Accept that we’re not idiots waiting to be spoon-fed and embrace the data sharing.

Heck, accept that publishing your lowest rates will bring in business from people who thought running a commercial was too expensive and stop running commercials to tell me what channel I’m watching.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Free the Files

Free the Files

Outside groups are spending hundreds of millions to influence the coming elections. Help unlock outside spending by "freeing" political ad buys from television stations in swing markets.

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