Journalism in the Public Interest

FCC-Required Political Ad Data Disclosures Won’t Be Searchable

The FCC vote on Friday mandating broadcaster disclosure comes with caveats.


(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(4/27/12): This post has been updated.

The Federal Communications Commission voted 2-1 this morning to require broadcasters to post political ad data on the Web, making it easier for the public to see how as much as $3.2 billion will be spent on TV advertising in this election. 

The files, which detail the times ads aired, how much they cost and whether stations rejected ad buy requests from campaigns, among other things, are currently available only on paper at each station.

The FCC rejected an industry push to water down the measure. But the adopted rule also has serious limits. For example, the data will not be searchable or uploaded in a common format.

The rule will first apply to affiliates of the four major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) in the top 50 TV markets. All other stations will have until July 2014 to comply.

“[L] arge areas of some swing states, like Virginia, Missouri, Wisconsin and Michigan, could see an influx of advertising in markets outside of the top 50,” the Sunlight Foundation noted in an analysis today.

(ProPublica has invited readers and other journalists around the country to retrieve the paper political ad files so we can post them online for all to see. We’ll continue to collect files from key markets not covered by the ruling. Sign up if you would like to contribute. )

Then there’s the crucial question of the format in which the files will be available. FCC spokeswoman Janice Wise told ProPublica that the commission is not creating a searchable database of the political ad files.

"We'll accept whatever [file] format they provide," she said in an email.

That will make it much more difficult to analyze the information.

Wise said there are no specific plans to make the database searchable.

By opting to allow stations to submit political data in any format, the commission departed from a recommendation made last year in an FCC working group report.  The report called for the political ad files to be put online and that “as much data as possible [be] in a standardized, machine-readable format” that “could also enhance the usefulness and accessibility of the data.”

Also unclear is how the broadcast industry, which vigorously lobbied against the rule, will react.

“[W]e will be seeking guidance from our Board of Directors regarding our options,” the National Association of Broadcasters said in a statement decrying the vote.

In March, the industry group submitted a supplemental statement to the commission raising “serious questions about the FCC’s authority” to require stations to put political ad data online.

“That was written as a legal memorandum, which is code for ‘we’ve lawyered up, and we’re ready to sue over this,’” says Andrew Schwartzman, a longtime FCC watcher at the Media Access Project.

The broadcasters’ group declined to comment beyond its statement.

On a Thursday earnings call for Belo Corp., one of the companies that has been fighting the disclosure measure, CEO Dunia Shive suggested that broadcasters would continue to fight the new disclosure rule.

“I don't think the conversation is over with respect to being able to continue talking about if we will ultimately have to include ad rates online," she said, Broadcasting & Cable reported.

Belo spokesman R. Paul Fry told ProPublica that the company merely “want[s] to continue the dialogue on this subject.”

The FCC also said today it would review the new rule after a year to see whether any changes need to be made before all stations are required to come into compliance in July 2014.

Wise, the FCC spokeswoman, said stations in the top 50 markets will have to start posting files 30 days after the Office of Management and Budget approves the rule. She said the FCC does not expect approval to take long.

In an analysis sent to clients and obtained by ProPublica, political ad tracking firm Kantar Media says the new rule will cover “about 60 percent of expected 2012 advertising on local spot TV, where the vast majority of televised political ads air. The remaining 40 percent will occur in smaller media markets and thus remain offline this year.”

The 60 percent figure amounts to $1.8 billion out of an expected total of $3 billion in local spot TV spending.

Among the significant stations that will not have to post ad data this year: local CW and independent affiliates and Spanish-language TV like Univsion. (The Obama campaign has already released Spanish TV ads.)

Arizona Eagletarian

April 27, 2012, 4:30 p.m.

Would you please post a list of the top 50 TV markets?


FCC should be disbanded and thrown into the sewer.

I just hope it doesn’t ruin the sewage treatment plant.

Ahhh…the broadcasters push themselves further towards obsolescence.  Now they go out of their way to create the public perception that they are colluding with the ideologues who use them as propaganda tools?

lolll…whenever a good or service is intentionally made less appealing to the public whether directly or by making the quality of the product suspect, it is an open invitation for competition that does not include the less appealing aspects of the existing product.

Not exactly genius when the technology and the infrastructure to replace them in toto already exists.

Stephanie Palmer

April 27, 2012, 5:09 p.m.


Fine example of avoiding TMI - don’t say what is good or why it is good, just say that it is good.  I predict a future in political advertising…

Every day the existence of our democracy, such is it is, is threatened more and more.  The government and elected officials are to serve the people and more and more we see that the government serves ‘industry’ (and incumbent elected officials).

The networks, and soon the FCC, decided to forget that the airwaves belong to all U.S. citizens.  We have rights, over who uses them and the uses they’re put to.  And they have duties.  One of them is some daylight on the networks’ sources of revenue for the claptrap - spin and lies sometimes verging on the obscene - that we’re force to let into our homes day and night for months on end if we want to see network programming, which I still do.

I’m trying to find out if there is just a thing as free radio for minority when you do not have a minority own station in your city does anybody have any information on this please advise

So what if the FCC won’t make the data searchable? Tools like Google Refine combined with crowdsourcing will make for a perfectly usable database, that’s NOT in the FCC’s, or the media companies’, control.

Like Ollie, I see this as a win.  The stations post the data, and those of us who want to use the data can work out the details of how.

You might all see it as nicer if the government defines a strict format, but I’ve lived through too many obsolete formats to think that’s a perfect solution.  On the other hand, I’ve worked on many projects that involved making different databases look like a unified whole, and it’s more tedious than difficult.

Really, as long as it gets posted (and the divergent formats aren’t used to hide omissions), we’re much better off than we were without them.

(It’s actually better than I would have predicted.  I figured it was going to end up as grainy JPEG files posted to each station’s website at non-standard URLs.  So just the fact that it’s centralized and machine-readable at all is terrific.)

@John:  Having had considerable experience myself as well as some experience with just how crooked politics is these days, the “any format is OK” idea instantly makes me expect cute tricks like hand-written lists scanned in as graphics which will likely be proof against most OCR programs.

It wouldn’t have been a big deal to require a simple tab-delimited list of who/when/amount and whatever else is pertinent.  Could have dumped it straight out of accounting at all of those stations…the ability to use the format of their choice is a loophole put in so those stations which don’t want their viewing base to comprehend their role as propaganda machines can make that role…obscure.

Be neat if they scanned those documents in and then distorted them programmatically a la a Captcha key, wouldn’t it?

They would have met the letter of the law while producing records that are virtually unusable.  I’ve observed that when a Federal Agency (or Congress) puts a loophole in, it is because somebody wants to exploit that loophole.

I would note that OCR is a machine (having used dedicated OCR machines), so grainy jpegs that are marginally “machine readable” meet the criteria.

I would further note that a tab-delimited list - as long as column order within the entire list is consistent - can have the columns in any order without presenting much of an obstacle.

But that “machine-readable” in no way rules out the requirement for OCR software/hardware.

Steve, I acknowledge that possibility, but even if that’s what they do, so what?  Put up a wiki and crowdsource the transcription.  As long as it’s available and can be read at all, the “right” job will get done.  The win is in having the data centralized.

And that assumes they’ll go to the effort of using the information in their CRMs to produce an image, to then distort.  This, from an industry that thinks the Internet is a fad and MPEG-2 is cutting edge technology.  I’m not saying they won’t, just that it’s like expecting a turtle to attack you with a baseball bat.

There’s also potential liability.  If a candidate comes under legal investigation, there could be obstruction of justice claims?

@John:  As to the obstruction of justice possibility, the above article (now) notes:

“By opting to allow stations to submit political data in any format, the commission departed from a recommendation made last year in an FCC working group report.”

and also notes:

“We’ll accept whatever [file] format they provide,” [FCC spokeswoman Janice Wise] said in an email.

As you are undoubtedly aware, modern databases include the capability of binary large object (BLOB) storage, making JPEG/TIFF/whatever storage in same possible and thus fulfilling the letter of the “law”.

To that loophole, you have to add the fact that there are remarkably few people pulling the right’s strings.  Is that tiny, malicious minority capable of funding and distributing the required software down their chain in order to obfuscate their amount of control?

Yes.  That is what they’re all about:  Destroying democracy from the shadows…hence the anonymity of SuperPAC giving, etc.  You have to make extraordinary efforts to identify the individuals and entities who are the power behind the right (although sometimes you get lucky: ).

I’ll leave it here, because I’ve promised not to continue a discussion when it becomes partisan for no reason.


a)  The image still needs to be generated.  No station is filling out paperwork to be scanned.  The information lives as plain old numbers and words in a database.  I won’t believe that someone will waste money to hire a programmer to generate and scramble the images until I see it, if only because it means hiring a human being.

b)  No matter how scrambled, the data is there to be picked out.  It might need human intervention, but if you’re too lazy to download an image and read off the squiggly letters for the benefit of the country, maybe you’re one of the people the station management thinks doesn’t deserve to see it.

Remember, Wikipedia happened by accident, not government mandate.  Jimmy Wales wanted a curated, edited encyclopedia he could sell subscriptions for to (no joke) fund a pornography project.  But the “scratch pad” overwhelmed the main project (and the porn) and became a place where many people spend hours volunteering their time, and a community that polices itself, just so you can refresh your memory about the guest stars in that one episode of “I Love Lucy.”

If that can happen, extracting the advertising information isn’t a hurdle.  The real challenge was mandating that it be to find, rather than “somewhere on the station’s website” or “in a filing cabinet.”

@John - if you look at ProPublica’s PAC/SuperPAC spending figures, you’ll see that the spending is heavily biased and so the subject is inherently “partisan”.

Credit where credit is due, however:  Attempting to shield biased media and those big spenders by labeling any attempt to expose them to the light of day as “partisan” has been a useful maneuver.

In the past.

Political Ad “Disclosures”, eh?  Who’s kidding whom?  It’s even too hot to mis-handle appropriately!

It seems to me that the real issue here, is that this site is blatantly politically biased, but offers no accountability, and in fact, is wholly into promoting one political point of view on this matter, while completely misleading the public.  How on earth can you, with a straight face, promote radical politics, and at the same time, profess to be objective or even truthful?

@Mark:  ProPublica, to my knowledge, doesn’t publish anything they don’t substantiate (I haven’t had any problem substantiating that which they publish) and in fact have never shown any reluctance to address comments that contradict what they write - at least, those comments which include specifics of the sort “This is untrue, and this is why.”. 

Which, I would note, you fail to do. 

In fact, your comment is more of a demand that ProPublica cease publishing the truth.  I find it amusing to note that is precisely the same reason why “the right” hates PBS and NPR. 

Amusing, but also a warning for the American public:  Defend those who tell the truth if you value your liberty, and mark well they who condemn those who tell the truth.

Time soothes the fleet fingers of fury, and always makes me wish I had said something just a little different.  Specifically:

If you value your liberty, defend those who tell the truth - and mark well they who condemn those who tell the truth.

Ibsteve2u, this whole topic of getting the government to tightly control political speech, IS wholly a partisan, and in fact, a very much politically radical idea.  Everthing is written from the notion that the FCC, the FEC, etc, have an obligation to ensure that much political speech is silenced, and only that which is approved by politicians… is allowed. 

That is how I know the writers are wholly NOT reporters, but instead, are skilled propagandists, who intend to brainwash the readers into ignoring the Constitution, the notion that freedom of speech is actually our right, etc.  Certainly, ANY reporting in the public interest would simply report the facts, and give information so that any and all sides of any issue are represented.  That absolutely does not exist here.  It is extremely dedicated to the misleading of the public who has the misforutune of reading it.

@Mark k:  That is bogus.  The so-called “conservatives” crossed the line with Citizens United wherein they permitted a tiny handful of individuals - CEOs - to levy the private tax they call profit upon all Americans who purchase a good or service from the corporation that those CEOs do not own but only control and in turn use those “profits” to anonymously buy advertising, politicians, and legislation without giving the shareholder and/or consumer any choice.

That is, they took rights away from the American people in their role as both consumer and shareholder by letting that CEO class use their money without giving them a choice to - in most cases - support legislation and politicians which will work against the interests of the American people whether they be a consumer or shareholder.

The anonymous use of corporate money against the American people is Stalinist, plain and simple, for it creates a state-within-the-state that is not under the control of democracy in any form but rather is the plaything of an elite class of petty tyrants.

The American people - as consumers, or as shareholders - need to know how their money is being used so they can choose whether or not to support the political agenda of those unelected CEOs.

There are very few cases in “real life” wherein those who insist upon being able to operate anonymously - in secret rooms and behind closed doors - have the best interests of the American people in mind.

Political advertising is not one of them.  The fact that those who seek to change the future your children will have wish to operate with the same amount of secrecy a pedophile pursues should be a glaring warning.

Yeah, you are definitely the totalitarianism loving liberal. 

Since you are irrational, don’t believe in things like freedom of speech, and want absolute power to control every iota of our life….  I have no more commentary to you.  People like you, and the radicalism of this site just have to be defeated and banished, because I have no wish to have our children living in a clone of the old Soviet Union.

You don’t approve of a clone of the old Soviet Union?  You probably should start being careful about who you work for, then.

@Fred:  Wait, so the FCC is absolutely corrupt….for wanting broadcasting stations to disclose information that is already public in a way that is more convenient to access? 

I…fail to see how that is corrupt in any way.  Unless you’re trying to imply that Obama is funding this movement to improve his campaign.  Which…also isn’t corrupt since his ad data would also have to be disclosed.

If you mean his already having ads out on networks that will not fall under this jurisdiction…well yes, he did make those ads.  And the major media conglomerates lobbied against rulings that would have required full disclosure of those ads.  So…he had nothing to do with that. 

Really, I don’t see how any of this leads to the FCC being corrupt.  If you’re going to sling arguments like that you should at least try to have an actual argument for it, rather than using ALL CAPS.

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