Ad Buys: FCC Data and (Partial) Transparency

Data about political advertising historically have been difficult to access, though recently the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) began implementing new disclosure requirements for TV stations.

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FCC data allow for the examination of campaign spending in the Iowa Senate race. More about these graphs below.

Who advertises and how much they spend intrigues political observers, not to mention campaign competitors.  Intrigue aside, this information is important for a democratic system aspiring to offer candidates equal access to paid broadcast media – and to put some stops on the ability of the broadcasters to pad their own pockets.

Broadcasters are required to offer the “lowest unit” rate to political advertisers in the lead-up to an election; the paper trail in the station’s own records (i.e., the “logs”) regarding air-time requests and contracts helps to validate compliance.  Good news for you regulatory watchdogs.  But what about the rest of us?

Like it or not, political ads are about democratic speech.   Often sleazy and manipulative speech, but speech nonetheless.  Who buys the ads, when they run, how much they cost tell us important things about voice and strategy in campaign politics, not to mention the monetary cost of speech.  So these ad data reveal a story about democracy.

Under the new FCC regulation, TV stations upload paperwork documenting the terms of each ad buy.  Hardly cutting-edge data protocol, it’s a big improvement.  In the not-so-distance past, there was one way to get at the public ad buy information:  show up in person at the TV station and go through the logs.  While a time-honored technique for occupying campaign interns, it was largely a transparency fail, because it meant the “public” was limited to those who had cars and some time on their hands.

The digital age ushered in a creative solution.  The Sunlight Foundation’s crowd-sourcing project, “Political Ad Sleuth,” asked volunteers to visit TV stations, copy the logs and upload information to Sunlight, which touted the added benefit of this information in a political environment marked by “dark money” groups.  The logs reveal which unregulated groups made the buy, and through scrutiny of other federal records (namely IRS 990 forms), observers could begin to piece together information about who runs the dark money groups.  Note:  Sometimes transparency takes a little work.

The new FCC rules represent an important move toward something closer to “public information” and looks a little more like real transparency.  But because the data are presented in a scanned format, not readily machine-readable, it still takes considerable effort to analyze them systematically – or just to create a data set.

There’s a little more more bad news.   Data regarding radio ads are still hidden in the logs, necessitating a trip to the radio station or a contract with a vendor who will do the work for you.

Wonder why the FCC doesn’t extend its “upload” regulatory reach to radio ads?  After all, it does still auction off the spectrum.   Or wonder why the FCC doesn’t require TV stations to provide information in machine-readable format?  It’s simple:  These battles are probably not winnable right now.   The more-public-than-in-the-past TV ad data may be as good as it gets, for a while at least.


Where to access FCC data? TV Station Profiles and Public Inspection Files (https://stations.fcc.gov/).  Search “Find a Station”, specifying station call letters, then “political files” on menu bar.

E.g., American Crossroads buy on KCCI for October 2014 air time.

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Systematic analysis?  Coding is probably in order, and you will need to construct your own data set.

Some analytical questions:

  • Reach of unregulated v. regulated voices.
  • Any evidence of coordinated activity?
  • Do patterns of advertising suggest strategic decisions (regarding competitive quality of contest, importance of voters in certain media markets, etc.)?
  • Message of ad in context of program placement (for the more qualitative types, but note that you’d need to track which specific ad airs to do this).

And one very practical question:  How can I adjust my viewership to avoid those ads as Election Day approaches?

Here at DASIL, we’ve looked at the FCC data for the high-profile U.S. Senate contest in Iowa for the open seat.  Campaign ad buys were analyzed for KCCI Des Moines from September 29 through November 3.  It’s noteworthy that both Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Ernst have spent a lot on ad buys during daily news slots.  Ernst spent a considerable amount on daytime programming ad buys.  If you were watching Dr Oz, The Price is Right, or The Young and the Restless, you likely saw Ernst ads.

Conversely, Braley’s non-news spending has been on primetime slots.  His ads will aired during The Big Bang Theory, Criminal Minds, The Good Wife, and Blue Bloods.  The graphics below break down their advertising spending based on programming.  For more about campaign ad buys in the Iowa Senate race, check out this Des Moines Register piece.

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Barbara Trish
Department of Political Science
Grinnell College

DASIL Analysis of FCC Data for KCCI Des Moines by Sara Sanders


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