The Federal Communications Commission will vote April 27 on a proposal that would require TV stations to post information from their so-called public files to a central Website. Among other things, the proposal would make information about political advertising readily available -- who is buying and what they are spending, names of billionaires and public-spirited citizen groups with vague titles like American Crossroads and Restore Our Future.
Initially, only big media companies like Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. (NYSE: NWS); CBS (NYSE: CBS); ABC, part of The Walt Disney Company (NYSE: DIS); and NBC, part of Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) -- along with their local affiliates in the top 50 media markets -- would be required to open their files to online scrutiny. Small station chains would get two years to get with the program. Still, it's a great idea, and an especially timely one as TV stations brace for a $3 billion deluge of presidential campaign ads in what is expected to be the most expensive election in the history of democracy.
The Website would be an improvement on the current system of open files. In exchange for using the public's airwaves, stations are required to keep files on the running of their businesses open to the public. All you have to do is take a day or two off from work, go down to your local station, find somebody who can find the old filing cabinets, and pull the appropriate folders so you can inspect the paperwork. It can be a time-consuming process in any market that has more than one TV station.
Information on political ad spending is a highlight of reports on primaries these days. Who is ahead in spending sometimes seems more vital than the delegate count. The availability of money for political advertising is a determining factor in who stays in the race and for how long. Take the case of Newt Gingrich, whose candidacy was on and off the heart and lung machine based on the lifesaving drug of Adelson Vegas money.
Most of us are not sitting by the TV set with an adding machine, keeping a running tab on the spending race as it hurtles from state to state. With this proposal, we would be able to go directly to the FCC Website, add up the numbers, and be depressed as hell about what this says about the democratic process. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see there may be a direct relationship between spending and voting patterns.
Naturally, broadcasters are against the FCC Open Files plan. They argue that it would cost too much money to send in the numbers. The one Republican still on the FCC (Commissioner Robert McDowell) said it would be "a job destroyer" by distracting station employees from doing their other work, such as selling commercials. Programming on local TV stations today often seems to be a series of commercials, interrupted by occasional scenes from shows.
Jerald Fritz, a senior vice president of the privately held Allbittron Communications, which owns nine nine local stations from Washington, D.C., to Charleston S.C., warned that the FCC plan "would ultimately lead to a Soviet-style standardization of the way advertising should be sold as determined by the government."
My heart goes out to the Pennsylvania broadcasters that face the burden of losing $2.5 million of commercials that were canceled by the Mitt Romney machine as soon as Rick Santorum threw his vest out of the race -- not to the mention all the other broadcasters losing the chance to feed at the primary trough.
The upside to the FCC initiative is that it might give the public a clearer picture of the impact of the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision, which gives the public-minded citizens behind super PACs the freedom to spend an unlimited amount of money to run attack messages ad nauseam. Turning elections into battles between the rich and the rich, and zeroing out those candidates too politically inept to appeal to those with deep pockets, will hopefully go down as the law of unintended consequences.
The proposal also might eventually make people wonder why broadcasters are free to charge candidates for messages on the public airwaves in the first place. These are the public's airwaves, after all.
Three billion bucks (and counting) does seem like an entitlement -- corporate welfare for the already commercial-heavy traffic on the public airwaves. Some might call it socialism.