Soon, anyone who wants to know how much a political candidate spent on a commercial will be able to find out with the click of a button.
The Federal Communications Commission voted Friday to require local television stations to publish on their websites detailed information about political advertising, including the cost of specific commercials.
Although such material is already required to be made available to the public, anyone seeking to know what candidates are spending, and on what programs, typically has to visit a local television station and make a request to see what's known as the "public files."
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who called the vote "a common sense" move, had pushed hard for this requirement, which had failed to pass the first time the FCC advocated it in 2007 under a previous chairman.
But broadcasters fought against certain parts of the new rule. While not objecting to posting political ad spending by candidates and campaigns in the aggregate, they balked at having to include specific rates for individual advertisements.
They fear that will make confidential information available to commercial advertisers as well as rival stations. Even though such information was already available, the general consensus in the industry is that advertisers rarely took the initiative to find it.
FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell was on the side of broadcasters and warned that the "unintended consequence could be to encourage price signaling and other anti-competitive behavior."
The National Assn. of Broadcasters, the primary lobbying arm of the television industry, said the new rule "jeopardizes the competitive standing of stations."
Broadcasters are also peeved that the new rules won't apply to cable or other media platforms as well.
"It's fundamentally unfair for the FCC to require broadcasters to disclose ad rates while our cable competitors get a free ride," NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said. "If this rule is all about transparency, why do cable companies get to hide their political ad prices?"
Under the rules passed by the FCC, only ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox television stations in the top 50 markets will have to put the political files online. Starting in 2014, all TV stations will be required to post the files.
Media watchdogs and public policy groups cheered the decision.
"Television broadcasters stand to rake in more than $3 billion in political ads this year," said Corie Wright, senior policy counsel for Free Press, a nonprofit media reform group. "Access to information about the money and special interests behind these ads will enable the public and journalists to track the political advertising flooding the airwaves."
The FCC did say it would review its decision in a year to see whether broadcasters have suffered any financial damage from the enhanced disclosure of political spending.
Political advertising information isn't the only thing broadcasters will be putting online. The FCC also said most other "public file" documents must be moved to the Web — including records regarding children's programming efforts and those concerning public affairs programming.