June 24, 2016
Who is behind those political ads on your local radio, satellite, and cable stations? Starting today, the public has more information on who is buying political ads in this contentious election year, in which estimates are that ad spending will be in the billions.
Today marks the first day that major radio, satellite, and cable stations must upload information about political ads at the website of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the public to see. Major TV broadcast stations have been providing such information online since 2012, and the FCC extended these requirements to all broadcast television stations in 2014. Earlier this year, the agency voted to apply these rules to cable, radio, and satellite stations, a decision the Sunlight Foundation hailed as “victory for transparency.”
Reports are are already flowing in to the FCC, as can be seen in this data feed from the agency. For example, this one, from “Cable entity 00812” — a Comcast company that reaches Philadelphia — reported an ad buy of $55,607 between June 8 and June 21 on behalf of the campaign of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is running for reelection in a hotly contested Pennsylvania Senate race against Democrat Katie McGinty. The ads are running on HGTV, AMC, and the Food channels, among others.
The new rules apply to: “cable systems with 1,000 or more subscribers, [direct broadcast satellite] providers, [Satellite Digital Audio Radio Service] licensees, and commercial radio stations in the top 50 Nielsen Audio radio markets with five or more full-time employees must place their new public inspection file documents in the Commission-hosted online public file database.”
The Political TV Ad Archive is currently tracking ad airings on broadcast TV stations in Philadelphia. Here are ads we’ve archived from Toomey’s campaign. Currently our project does not track ad buys, but rather archives the ads themselves and monitors how often they air in select markets. Such information is available for download here.
The Sunlight Foundation’s Political Ad Sleuth project collects the reports from the FCC on TV broadcast buys, and organizes them in an easily searchable format. The group is exploring ways to include these new files in this online tool.
While the FCC reports provide a valuable source of information for the public about political ad buys, they are notoriously difficult to work with. Ad contract information is typically provided in a “PDF” document format rather than in a form easily analyzed via a spreadsheet type of program. This means a reporter or researcher interested in reporting on ad buys must sift through thousands of pages of documents.