Shocker: TV Stations Balk at Giving Advertising Competitors an Edge


Pro Publica staffers applaud their inability to grasp business concepts.

If business people protest against having their bottom-line prices handed over by government agents to competitors, customers and the curious world at large, that's:

A. not too frigging surprising behavior for businesses trying to survive in this dog-eat-dog world

B. dark, conspiratorial behavior by moneyed interests

If you picked B, you've obviously been reading Pro Publica, the non-profit source of "journalism in the public interest" and the self-described savior of investigative journalism. This week, the publicly interested investigators are on the trail of sinister lobbyists who oppose a proposed FCC rule requiring broadcasters "to electronically send the commission updates to its political file — in other words, information about what political ads are being purchased, by whom, and for how much money — instead of merely maintaining paper files at the stations, the current practice. The information would be made public on an FCC website."

But the FCC won't release the exact text of the rule until after the panel votes to finalize it later this month. Meanwhile, the wording is subject to change based on input from interested parties.

That's why the National Association of Broadcasters has been paying visits to key FCC officials this month. A group of influential Republican senators has also told the FCC they oppose the proposed rule.

On April 3 and 10, National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith met officials, including all three FCC commissioners, to make his case against required online disclosure of the public political ad information.

We know about Smith's closed-door meetings at the FCC because of commission rules requiring prompt public disclosure filings that detail what is said when lobbyists come calling. The filings, which summarize the lobbyists' pitches, are designed to assure that "FCC decisions are not influenced by impermissible off-the-record communications between decision-makers and others."

Smith, a former senator, is making gobs of money in his new gig — and he's accustomed to making all that moolah because "[h]is Oregon frozen-food businesses paid him millions of dollars in 2008."

But wait! There's more!

Also lobbying the commission was Jane Mago, executive vice president and general counsel of the NAB. She's a familiar face at the FCC. Before joining the broadcasters' group in 2004, Mago spent more than 26 years at the commission, holding top positions, including general counsel.

Such shady dealing. But why? Why would broadcasters oppose such a publicly interesting matter as disclosing the details of their political ad sales to the public? Eventually, Pro Publica mentions a relevant tidbit:

The law states that broadcasters must give political candidates the lowest rates for the same class and length of ad that they offer other buyers. (This does not apply to outside groups like super PACs.)

In fact, the law says:

(a) Charges for use of stations. The charges, if any, made for the use of any broadcasting station by any person who is a legally qualified candidate for any public office in connection with his or her campaign for nomination for election, or election, to such office shall not exceed:

(1) During the 45 days preceding the date of a primary or primary runoff election and during the 60 days preceding the date of a general or special election in which such person is a candidate, the lowest unit charge of the station for the same class and amount of time for the same period.

So, if the FCC posts all of that detail about political ads online, it torpedos the ability of TV networks and broadcasters to negotiate with any of their advertising customers about the cost of campaigns, because the low-ball rates are all posted over at the FCC Website — in a poorly designed database, no doubt, but there nevertheless — after being compiled at broadcaster expense. And it torpedos that ability for the major networks, while leaving independent station free for several more years, and cable stations untouched. 

Now, maybe broadcasters shouldn't have variable rates; maybe they, along with hotels, airlines and freelance writers, should publicly post their fixed rates, along with fat and fiber content. But isn't an attempt to defend the industry's long-standing pricing structure a tad different than a "behind closed doors" conspiracy?