Major television stations throughout the country will soon be required to disclose online how much candidates and interest groups pay for political advertisements. The so-called “political file” rules will take effect on August 2, 2012, following approval by the Office of Management and Budget of the online disclosure requirements adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in April 2012. The political file rules will initially apply only to television stations located in the top 50 national markets that are affiliated with the “big four” national broadcast networks. All other stations will need to comply with the political file rules by July 1, 2014. In addition to political advertising pricing and sales data, the FCC’s rules require television stations to provide programming lists, retransmission consent elections, joint sales agreements, FCC investigation notices, and other information in the online file hosted by the FCC.
The political file rules have drawn harsh criticism from certain broadcasters and lawmakers. Under the FCC’s rules, broadcast and cable stations may only charge political candidates the “lowest unit” rate for commercial advertisements. Broadcasters are concerned that making their political advertising rates widely accessible may cause private-sector advertisers to demand the same low price. In May, a group of broadcasters filed suit in federal court, alleging the political file rules violate the free speech protections of the First Amendment and exceed the FCC’s authority. Broadcasters also asked the OMB to reject the information collection requirements imposed by the political file rules as unduly burdensome and duplicative of existing FCC reporting obligations. A coalition of Republican lawmakers joined the broadcasters’ opposition to the new rules by introducing a rider to the recent FCC appropriation bill which would have cut off funds for implementing the political file requirements. Late last month, the lawmakers abandoned the rider, but inserted new language requiring the Government Accountability Office to analyze the economic impact of the rules. Public interest groups have opposed the broadcasters’ challenges, stating that the new disclosure requirements are well within the FCC’s authority and improve transparency-related goals.