Beginning August 2, 2012, about 200 TV station affiliates of NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox in the nation’s top 50 TV markets were required by the FCC to start posting the records of political ad buys online for easier access. Prior to this date, these records could still be obtained, but only by going directly to the TV station’s location and requesting them (this procedure is still in place for all other stations, including cable). The ability to access this information more quickly and easily will allow for greater transparency in political elections.
Broadcasters had been fighting against this requirement for a number of years because they said it created “an onerous paperwork burden.” They are now saying that the new rule would affect their bottom line by exposing their ad pricing to other customers and to their competitors. After one year, the FCC will re-evaluate its decision based on the effect that it had on the 200 TV stations.
Unfortunately, there are still huge numbers of political ad buys that are not covered by the FCC ruling because they fall outside the nation’s top 50 TV markets. According to the Sunlight Foundation, this includes more than half of the ads (tens of thousands) that have aired in 4 of the 9 presidential swing states. None of the ad spending in Iowa has to be reported. Only 30% of that in Wisconsin and 45% of that in Colorado have to be reported online.
The Sunlight Foundation not only collects info from FCC records but also gathers information, with the help of journalists and concerned citizens, from some of the TV stations not covered by the FCC order. They have created a tool called “Political Ad Sleuth” that allows journalists, organizations, and individuals to sort through their database to gather the information they need. For example, the document that identifies the principals behind a political ad buy can be found. To learn more about “Political Ad Sleuth” and what information is available, click here. To sign-up as a Sleuth, click here.
According to records gathered by the Sunlight Foundation, $207 million was spent on political ads in September by outside groups (PACs, super PACs, non-profits, and party committees). This was significantly more than any other month and was more than double the amount spent in August. That $207 million figure is 38% of the $548 million of independent spending in the entire 2012 election cycle (as of 9/30/12). To put things in greater perspective, the $207 million spent in September is about two thirds of the total outside spending in the 2008 election (the last election prior to the Citizens United decision), according to the Center for Responsive Politics. I expect spending in October to be even higher. For the first 9 days of October, nearly 50% of the $87 million spent came from 501(c)4s, “dark money” groups.
The Sunlight Foundation has started posting a weekly video series on the 2012 election called the “Political Weather Report”. Here’s a link to the first video (10/12/12):
Political Weather Report Episode 1