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FCC Database Creates Headaches for TV Stations in Battlegrounds

A Federal Communications Commission plan to make television stations disclose how many political ads they have sold is creating administrative headaches for network affiliates in battleground states that deal with a dozen or more campaigns or political groups in a single market.

An online database the FCC launched last week is designed to eliminate the need for people to obtain hard-copy files of advertising agreements from individual stations. Instead, the stations must scan the agreements into computers, convert them into PDF files and upload them to the database.

“There isn’t any question that it’s using up station resources in terms of time spent for some people who normally had full-time jobs doing something else,” said Lou Schottelkotte, director of sales at ABC affiliate WEWS in Cleveland.

In battlegrounds such as northeast Ohio, Schottelkotte said, there can be 10 to 12 political entities jockeying for air time simultaneously. One native of the Buckeye State, T.J. Basalla, a marketing specialist for a technology company, recently tweeted, “You can honestly go through an entire local newscast in Cleveland and see nothing but political ads.”

The reporting requirement applies only to affiliates of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC in the top 50 U.S. media markets. The FCC plans to add broadcasters such as Telemundo and affiliates in smaller markets starting in July 2014. Radio stations and video distributors are exempt until the agency studies the rule’s effect.

Broadcasters complained in letters to the FCC in April that the effort could potentially undermine political ad sales because rates could be viewed online.

Despite their complaints and several lawsuits to halt the effort by groups including the National Association of Broadcasters, the rule took effect late last week.

The FCC said it’s modernizing and adding transparency to a disclosure process that’s been in place since 1938. An FCC official, who declined to be quoted citing agency policy, said stations don’t have to collect any additional information under the new rule. Portions of the ad agreements are available for public viewing at station offices.

Putting the agreements online will make it easier to track who’s behind the millions of dollars in political ad spending, according to campaign finance groups.

Some groups such as the Sunlight Foundation are not entirely satisfied with the system because the use of PDF files makes it difficult to search agreements. The agency website can only be searched by station call letters, not by the names of groups buying ads. Sunlight has already created Political Ad Sleuth, a separate system that the public can contribute to and allows for aggregate searches.

Records on the site show ABC affiliate WSYX in Columbus, Ohio, in just one week, sold 40 separate 30-second ads worth more than $23,000 to Americans for Prosperity, a tea-party-affiliated organization backed by the billionaire conservative donors David and Charles Koch.

Political ad spending in other swing states has also been increasing, which means stations must devote more time to transferring those contracts online.

“It’s picking up as we get closer to the different voting dates, but no surprise there,” said Brad Moses, president and general manager of NBC affiliate WFLA in Tampa. “We had very little in April, and now, we have quite a bit more.”

Some stations have said there seem to be “kinks” and “hiccups” with the new database, but they expect them, given its recent launch. Many of the PDF files that stations have already uploaded may not appear, or open, as well.

A number of stations Roll Call contacted declined to discuss the database. Only a few weeks before the launch, ABC, NBC and Fox said they supported a petition to reconsider the rule. The FCC said it trusts any station with a broadcast license to comply and post the required information.

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