NAB working to keep political ad info off line


The National Association of Broadcasters does not have a problem with the concept of online public files. However, it does have a problem with posting sensitive ratecard information there as part of its disclosure on political advertising activity. At least one watchdog thinks this is a “bizarre claim,” since anyone – including competitors – could go to the station and get the info.

NAB’s Jane Mago made an ex parte trip to the FCC along with Maureen O’Connell of News Corporation, Margaret Tobey of NBCUniversal, and Joe Di Scipio of Fox Television Stations to make the case that there are “unique problems” associated with putting the entire political file online. They stated their case in a meeting with several Media Bureau staffers headed by Chief Bill Lake.

According to an ex parte disclosure statement, the broadcast entourage made the following points:

* We noted the potential anticompetitive effect of making individual advertising rates information available online where competitors in the market and commercial advertisers may anonymously glean highly sensitive pricing data, which, by law, will represent the lowest rates charged by the station to its most favored commercial advertisers. We noted the potential this has for distortion in the market for commercial advertising, to the ultimate detriment of local television stations and their viewers.

* We noted the inequity of requiring TV broadcasters to make this information available while not requiring the same of our competitors for political advertising dollars.

* We noted that the FCC’s prior decision to not include the political file in the online public file requirement was correct, and that the FCC does not have any solid justification for changing its conclusion. The reasoning for that prior decision was, in significant part, because of the significant burden associated with the political file in particular.
* Finally, we pointed to the suggestion in our comments that we be required to make “dates and dollars” information available over the phone to political time buyers, and are open to discussing other options for keeping sensitive rate information out of the online public file. We suggested that some information be included online, but that sensitive rate information be kept at the public file at the station.
The group also raised questions about two other FCC file proposals:

* We expressed concern about including in the public file a detailed list of the sponsorship identification information that is already included in the end credits after each of our shows where necessary. We argued that this requirement would be duplicative, and therefore unnecessarily burdensome. We noted that we take great care in the size of the font and the length of time a sponsorship identification is on the air to ensure that viewers are able to view this information easily. We also asked what the demonstrated need was to include this information online.

* We also urged the FCC to wait to decide whether Shared Services Agreements and Local News Sharing Agreements be included in the public file until AFTER it has resolved the issue of whether these relationships are attributable for purposes of the ownership rules.

The New America Foundation questioned the logic of the argument about the content of the file. It noted that it was readily available to somebody who was able to visit the station during normal business hours and pay for copying expense if desired. NAF said, “Putting it online is just asking the broadcasters to enter the 21st century and make good on the public interest obligations broadcast stations took on in exchange for a government grant to use publicly owned spectrum for free.”

NAF demonstrated what was already possible, posting actual political file material from the 2010 election cycle, providing rates and invoices from television stations in the Honolulu DMA.

RBR-TVBR observation: In our opinion, the question isn’t so much about TV v. TV or radio v. radio, it’s about broadcast v. cable, v. newspaper, v. direct mail, v. internet, v. outdoor and v. robocall service, among other v’s.

Why should any of these businesses get a leg up on broadcasters by looking up rates and using them when pitching political and mainstream advertisers? And yes, this information is an all-purpose treasure trove for competing media.

On top of that, why should voters be kept in the dark about how much campaigns are spending with other media? Doesn’t it defeat the purpose of shedding light on political advertising expenditures if they can run with complete secrecy everywhere except on broadcast outlets?

The argument should not be whether this sensitive information should be posted online as well as in the file cabinet, the argument is that absent a blanket disclosure rule that applies to all media, this sensitive information shouldn’t be filed anywhere.