FCC weighs new ad disclosure rules for 2016

The Federal Communications Commission is moving to expand disclosure rules on political advertising just in time for the 2016 elections.

Supporters say the expanded rules could add another tool for journalists and operatives to track campaign spending in what will likely be the most expensive campaign cycle ever.

While the agency is still early in the rule-making process, according to one FCC official, it’s a “safe” assumption that the new rules could be in place before the first primary of the 2016 presidential election.

The proposal would require cable, satellite and radio companies to post online information about political ad buys. The rule, which was circulated by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Thursday, would bring those companies in line with broadcast television stations.

A 2012 rule forced television broadcasters to post information on an online FCC database detailing the size of ad buys and the name of the person, campaign or group who sponsored it.

Advocates have pressed to expand the rule, saying the broadcast television disclosures opened the public’s eyes to the amount of money being spent and who is spending it. 

"But it is still a drop in the bucket in terms of disclosure," said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center.

The process is already moving at a quick pace.

In late July, a trio of transparency watchdogs — the Sunlight Foundation, the Campaign Legal Center and Common Cause — filed a petition for rule making to expand the disclosure rules. The FCC began seeking comment on the petition in August, and the chairman began circulating a notice of proposed rule-making this week. 

Democratic FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel on Friday quickly gave her support to Wheeler's expanded proposal — noting Congress has pressed the agency to keep pace with new technology.  

While the other three commissioners did not respond to a request for comment, Democratic commissioner Mignon Clyburn helped approve the broadcast television rules in 2012. 

"I am not a particularly optimistic person generally speaking, but [there are] a lot of good signs and reasons to be hopeful that this is going to move smoother," said Sean Vitka, federal policy manager for the Sunlight Foundation. 

The Sunlight Foundation said the broadcast television data has already yielded valuable information about just how many groups do not register with the Federal Election Commission. 

The new rules could be a "big step forward" for transparency in 2016, according to the foundation. 

The radio information alone would be interesting because it is where a lot of the "political dirty work is done," said Kathy Kiely, the managing editor of the foundation's reporting group. 

Broadcast television ads still make up the vast majority of the ad budget for campaigns, but there is growing spending on cable as well. 

"Given this trend, it’s imperative that the FCC expand its online filing requirement to cable and satellite operators, as well as broadcast radio licensees," a group of lawmakers wrote in September in a letter to the FCC chairman.

The letter was signed by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), as well as Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

The nation’s top cable lobby has responded cautiously to the proposed rules.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association has said the FCC should "avoid imposing undue burdens on cable operators."

The National Association of Broadcasters opposed the online disclosures for broadcast television in 2012. But the group said Thursday it supports cable and satellite being made to abide by the same disclosure rules. The trade group, though, has warned against burdening small broadcast radio stations. 

Time Warner Cable has voluntarily started posting ad buy information online. And people have already begun studying that data — a hint of the intense political targeting likely in 2016.

An analysis by Republican-affiliated firm Echelon Insights last month looked at more than half a million individual cable spots run in markets ranging from New York and Los Angeles to Texas and Kentucky. 

"Though cable remains a relatively small percentage of overall TV buying, the variety of options for targeting mean that it can yield valuable insights as to the two parties’ targeting that broadcast can’t," said Patrick Ruffini at the time, a strategist with the firm. 

The analysis found that cable news channels like Fox News and CNN were the most popular place to buy political advertising on cable. However, ESPN, HGTV and the USA Network were also in the top five. 

It also found Fox News and the Golf Channel were most densely populated with GOP ads, while E! Network, MSNBC, Comedy Central, ABC Family, BET and Bravo almost exclusively ran Democratic ads.