They prefer the old paper-only filing because of the added expense, time and manpower needed to post online. And they worry who will get this info and what they’ll do with it.
The ultra-conservative billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, will have something to say during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., next month.
As of Aug. 13, the Koch’s Super PAC Americans For Prosperity has spent $127,715 for spots on the four Charlotte stations that will air between Aug. 28 and Sept. 9, overlapping the convention that begins its four-day run on Sept. 3.
The breakout: $40,200 for Raycom’s WBTV (CBS); $11,725 for Bahakel’s WCCB (Fox); $20,740 for Belo’s WCNC (NBC); and $55,050 for Cox’s WSOC (ABC).
The buys are just a bit of the information that can be gleaned from TV Stations Profiles & Public Inspection Files — a corner of the FCC’s massive website where affiliates of the Big Four networks in the top 50 markets have been obliged under new FCC rules to file political advertising contracts since Aug. 2.
In compliance, the broadcasters are currently posting hundreds of political advertising contracts online daily in PDF form. Prior to the FCC adoption of the rules last April, the stations had to place copies only in their paper public inspection files. The only way to see them was to go to the stations.
With the contracts now online, campaign finance and media watchdog groups can remotely access and analyze the buying and selling of political time, and they are seizing the opportunity, but they are struggling with how to digest and make use of the sheer volume of raw data.
“This is such a revolution in terms of public access to data,” said Corie Wright, senior policy counsel, Free Press. The big drawback, in her view, is that the submissions from the stations are all in PDF files, which are not searchable. She’s hoping the FCC will address that in the future and make the data more user-friendly for the public.
Joshua Hatch, online content manager for the Sunlight Foundation, which is working with other groups — including Free Press and the New America Foundation — to gather and make use of the data, agrees that the FCC needs to take further action.
“I think the focus at the FCC so far is making it as easy as possible for stations to upload their files — and so far it hasn’t publicly focused on making it easy for us to get the files,” he said.
Broadcasters have a different view.
“The biggest problem is how remarkably unprepared the FCC has been,” said Alan Frank, president of Post-Newsweek Stations, complaining that the new system wasn’t working just a few days before going live and the commission couldn’t even make its webinar work to introduce the new system to the people who had to use it.
The FCC has said all along that what it wanted was to have online exactly what stations already had in their paper public files, but the new system, with lots of different folders for each station, is quite different, Frank said.
Frank also said that the public groups seeking the information are dictating what the FCC is doing and he criticized the commission for a lack of transparency on how those rules are being crafted. “They seem to be making up the rules as they go along,” he said.
An FCC spokesperson told TVNewsCheck that no one was available to discuss the new online system.
At Sunlight, Hatch’s staff is working to automate as much as possible its tracking and downloading of new filings. The degree to which that is successful will determine how much additional manpower he’ll need to track the spending.
Right now, he said, he has between a half dozen and a dozen people working on the project.
Hatch said he knew of no willful non-compliance by TV stations and only scattered incidences of problems with filings, such as a contract missing a page.
“We’re hearing the process is proving to be burdensome for some stations,” says Ann Marie Cumming, VP of communications at NAB, which failed to win a court order blocking the new rule from taking effect.
Only a couple of hundred stations in the top 50 markets have to upload filings now, but the requirement will extend to all stations in even the smallest markets in 2014.
NAB had objected to broadcasters having to disclose ad sale pricing information, while competing media outlets are able to continue to keep that data secret. “It … puts stations at a competitive disadvantage,” Cumming says.
Tom Griesdorn, GM of Dispatch Broadcast Group’s CBS affiliate WBNS Columbus, Ohio, said he is coping with the new requirement. Posting each order requires “quite a bit of time,” he said. That’s resulted in some overtime costs and is also demanding the attention of a part-timer hired to help deal with the heavy political ad demand this year.
Griesdorn said there have been some problems with PDF files becoming corrupted when uploaded, so staffers have had to call the FCC to get things straightened out.
Although the system seems to be working, he said, he’d rather return to the paper-only method. The burden should be on the people involved in an election to search information in a station’s public file, rather than making stations expend resources to put the material online where it is accessible not only to political campaigns and watchdog groups, but also to other types of advertisers.
“I haven’t yet had an opportunity, because we’ve been so busy, to stop and think about the backlash of having all of our advertisers being able to access these sites to obtain rates, quotes and specific orders to use against us in the future in negotiations,” he said.
Broadcasters at Spanish-language, independent and CW stations in the top 50 markets should not be surprised to have data gatherers show up at their studios to copy the political ad contracts from their public files.
The same holds true for stations outside the top 50 markets, but in political battleground states.
Free Press and its allies are actively recruiting students and others to be “Political Ad Sleuths” who will gather paper copies of political ad contracts so that data can be added to what’s being gotten from the online filings. The sleuths also are being sent to stations that are now filing online to gather copies of ad contracts from before Aug. 2.
“The need is enormous, so I don’t think we’ll be able to cover the entire country by any means, but we’re hopeful,” said Josh Stearns, journalism and public media campaign director at Free Press, who had been out last week visiting stations in Chicago.
His teams last month completed data gathering from every TV station in Wisconsin, which was selected because of the heavy spending for this year’s gubernatorial recall election. Now, Free Press is recruiting faculty and students on college campuses in hopes of replicating that effort in other states.
The paper copies the volunteers gather from the stations are being posted on a website called Document Cloud. Like those on the FCC site, they are PDF documents and unsearchable.
Just what the interest groups will be able to do with the data remains to be seen.
Rather than comprehensive reports on campaign spending, they are for now putting out blog items on some highlights unearthed in the broadcasters’ filings and offering guidance to reporters on how to locate information for specific stories.