CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There’s a behind-the-scenes political battle in North Carolina this year, but chances are you will not hear about it on TV. That’s because this fight is about TV. It pits broadcasters, the people who operate television stations, against public interest groups.
The forum: The Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, the people who license broadcasters. At issue: Whether television stations should be required to post ad contracts online that show how much candidates and political committees including the new so-called “superPAC’s” are spending on TV ads.
Most television newsrooms avoid the issue. It certainly hits close to home and poses an inherent conflict of interest. Political advertisers help to pay the salaries of the employees of television newsrooms. And broadcast operators have hired lobbyists to fight proposed new regulation pending before the FCC which would force broadcasters to take their political ad costs out of paper files and make them available on the internet for the world to see.
But taken altogether, the numbers contained in these obscure files paint a big picture about political strategies and just who is paying how much for what message to which audience. It’s a snapshot of a campaign.
Very few members of the public know of the existence of the so-called “public file” available for inspection at television stations, and even fewer people understand what’s in that file. It takes some effort to see these files. You have to show up in person at each TV station during business hours, sign in, fill out a form, and inspect the paper files one at a time. Photocopies cost from 25 cents to $1 per page, depending on the station. Getting a big picture requires visiting multiple stations and adding the costs of multiple ad campaigns.
So the FCC has proposed rules requiring stations to post the files online.
“These files are already public,” said Fiona Morgan, a media researcher who studies public files at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. “We’re just trying to make them more accessible – it’s as simple as that.”
But broadcasters, including the owners of all the three big Charlotte stations have pushed back – hiring Washington lobbyists to ask the FCC to ease the regulation.
“The government often has regulations that impose costs on business that don’t really yield much public benefit,” said Mark Prak, a lawyer for the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters in Raleigh.
Prak said the broadcasters object to rules that would force them to spend hours re-typing data into government forms. “That didn’t make a lot of sense,” he said.
But Fiona Morgan counters that the broadcasters use the public airwaves and public disclosure is an obligation. “It doesn’t seem like that much to ask,” she said.
Broadcasters also object to revealing precise advertising rates charged to issue-oriented political advertisers, saying it could lead to cost comparisons and drive down ad revenue. But public interest groups say the money is a small price to pay for public transparency.
The FCC is scheduled to vote on the exact requirements of the rule at a meeting on Friday in Washington.
The NewsChannel 36 I-Team scanned documents indicating ad costs for 2012 from the public files of WBTV, WCCB, WCNC, and WSOC and entered the gross and net costs into the spreadsheet below. The spreadsheet does not include ads purchased by individual candidates or political parties. Your comments are welcome at Iteam@wcnc.com.