Local TV news broadcasters have gotten a windfall in political advertising, in part as a result of the Citizens United decision. SNL KAGAN, a media industry analyst, recently estimated that TV broadcasters will earn $2.5 billion in political advertising in 2012—up 62.5% over 2008. Just ten years ago, in 2002, only $707 million was spent. Much of this spending goes to local TV stations. In assessing the health of local broadcasting, SNL Kagan declared: “TV station revenue has been going gangbusters in 2010 thanks to the return of auto ad spending, a strengthening of core categories and influx of political dollars.”

The New York Times recently reported that political advertising has so improved the financial health of local station that they are now the targets of takeover activity.

This influx of political advertising spending has come at a time when many TV stations do not do an adequate job, journalistically, of covering the elections. The FCC’s Information Needs of Communities report noted:

Local election coverage on commercial television stations is particularly lacking. In 2004, a study of local TV news coverage in 11 media markets found that only 8 percent of the 4,333 broadcasts during the month before the election had stories that even mentioned local races…During the run-up to the elections, the stations produced eight times more coverage on accidental injuries than on local races, according to the Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School. Meanwhile, the stations were flooded with TV ads about local races. In states with competitive Senate races, four times as many hours were given to advertisements as to coverage of the race. Yet less than one percent of the political stories that were done critiqued the ads.”

The report went on to note:

It is unlikely that matters have improved since then. In 2006, viewers of local news in the Midwest got 2.5 times more information about local elections from paid advertisements than from newscasts, according to a University of Wisconsin study. The average length of a political piece was 76 seconds (down from 89 seconds in 2002), and “most of the actual news coverage of elections on early and late-evening broadcasts was devoted to campaign strategy and polling, which outpaced reporting on policy issues by a margin of over three to one.
Putting the material online could make a significant difference. The Sunlight Foundation, one of the leading groups studying and advocating for more effective political transparency, wrote in support of the FCC proposal:
The current system, in which valuable information about political ads is located in the file cabinets of broadcasters across the country, prevents the information from being shared, analyzed or understood.…Political advertising has always had an overwhelming impact on the election process. Little is more fundamental to the functioning of our democracy than voters’ understanding of who is influencing our elections….A searchable FCC database of ad buys would not only enable the public to go directly to the FCC’s website to ascertain who is behind any given political advertisement, but would allow for re-use of the data and in-depth analysis by local journalists, scholars and others who could analyze whether the money spent on political ads is coming from in-state or out-of-state, whether more money is being spent by outside groups than the candidates themselves and where races are heating up as determined by spending.

In another submission to the FCC, a public-interest group in Michigan gave a great example of why putting this information online could be transformative. In 2010, the group compared the advertising bought on local TV stations to the spending that was reported to the state under campaign-disclosure laws. It found that, over the last decade, :$20.8 million, or 49.5 percent of all spending in Michigan Supreme Court election campaigns, was not reported to the State. In three gubernatorial campaigns in 2002, 2006 and 2010, $42 million in candidate-focused television advertising was not reported to the State. In 2010, the following percentages of campaign spending in statewide general election campaigns were not reported to the State: Governor: 53.5 percent; Supreme Court: 56.5 percent; Attorney General: 44.8 percent; Secretary of State: 50.0 percent.”

But consider how difficult it was to pull together this information:

Each election cycle I drive thousands of miles and spend scores of hours in data collection. To cite the extreme, I have spent 14 hours behind the windshield to engage in a 15-minute data collection exercise at a station in Marquette in the Upper Peninsula. In 21st Century America, that is ridiculous. Broadcasters can easily web- publish the contents of their political files, and they should do so.

An online disclosure system would allow that group, or any other, to perform this kind of watchdog function far more easily.

Steven Waldman was senior advisor to the Chairman of the FCC and principal author of its report on the changing media landscape. He was chair of the Council on Foundations Working Group on Nonprofit Media and is a consultant to the Pew Research Center. Before that, he was the founder of Beliefnet.com and a national correspondent for Newsweek.