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Volume 21 No. 2
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New online rule opened door to research

When the White House Office of Management and Budget in July ordered the Federal Communications Commission’s controversial rule requiring broadcasting companies to post information about political advertisements online to go into effect by Aug. 2, it was at once a blessing and a curse for a researcher.

The FCC had passed the rule in April, requiring local ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates in the country’s 50 largest television markets to provide information about their political ad buys to the FCC, which that entity now posts in an online database. Some members of Congress and the National Association of Broadcasters had lobbied heavily against the disclosure rule, arguing that making public the rates broadcasters charge for ads will harm their business. We hear similar arguments when we ask a sponsor how much they pay for things such as a naming-rights deal.

Before the FCC’s rule, political ad information was made available to the public, but the only way anyone could view it was by going to each station in person to obtain the physical copies.

But sifting through more than 5,000 separate filings, each ranging from one to 40 pages long, we pulled nearly 4,000 unique spots purchased during sports telecasts. Filings were rarely in logical order — a $20,000 “Sunday Night Football” spot was as likely to be found tucked into separate 40-spot buys on “Judge Judy” and “Wheel of Fortune” as it was adjacent to an $1,800 “Football Night in America” buy.

Along the way, we picked up more tidbits than we could possibly publish. For example, a stunning $281,800 was spent on spots during Ohio State football games, 87 percent of which came from President Barack Obama’s campaign. And a World Series buy made a month before the teams were even known costs $2,100 in Charlotte versus $11,250 in Tampa. And NBC affiliates might be happy to know that the Olympics and NFL-related broadcasts on their network helped generate more than 45 percent of all the $13.6 million we tracked.

— David Broughton