Some TV stations in Missouri will need to make political ad purchase information available on the web in the coming months, thanks to a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission late last week.

Commercial stations that are affiliates of the major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) in the top 50 local television markets will need to upload these documents to the FCC’s website after the rules kick in some time this summer. Smaller-market stations will need to start filing on July 1, 2014.

That means we’ll be able to get access to the ad-buy information from the eight affiliates in St. Louis (market 21) and Kansas City (market 31), but not for the 10 or so other TV stations in those markets. Neither will we be able to look up information about ads running in the state’s smaller markets, which include Columbia, Joplin, Springfield, St. Joseph, Hannibal, Cape Girardeau and Kirksville.

The FCC ruling paves the way for a revamp of the way commercial TV stations have long made public the information about political ad purchases. Since 1938, the commission has required stations to keep copies of the ad buys in the stations’ public files. Want to view the documents? You’ll have to travel to the business offices of your local TV stations, just like we’re doing for a website about the 2012 elections that we’re building at the Missouri School of Journalism. We’re visiting the stations, scanning the information and making it available online so you can see how local, state and national campaigns are spending money to win your vote with ads like this.

 

So when the FCC late last year proposed putting the ad-buy information online, I filed comments with the commission, urging it to do so.

Dive into the details of the FCC’s order and you can see that it’s a mixed bag for citizens, journalists and open-government advocates.

  • TV stations will not have to load data about past political ad purchases, just those “going forward.” The commission felt that requiring stations to dig back in time would be a burden.
  • The FCC won’t require stations to report the information in a structured format, which would provide journalists, researchers and political operatives rich data that they could analyze. The FCC says providing the information in a structured data format is the ultimate goal, but one that needs to be set aside to get the ad-buy information online now.
  • Stations will be able to upload the ad-buy documents in an existing electronic format, such as Word, rich text or PDF.
  • When stations submit documents that do not include readable text, the commission will use optical character recognition (OCR) software to extract the text.
  • The commission has no plans to let the public search the contents of the documents.
Taken as a whole, the commission’s order seems like it’s designed to be the least offensive to the broadcasters, who fought the proposal and will need to post information within months. Time will tell whether the rule is strong enough to deliver information that’s easy for the public to navigate and satisfies the thirst for details about who’s paying to influence our elections.