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Broadcast TV stations must now post political ad buy documents online

Screen shot of a political ad featured in the PBS Frontline special
Screen shot of a political ad featured in the PBS Frontline special "Big Sky, Big Money."
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The Federal Communications Commission today greatly expanded its online database documenting political ad purchases on broadcast TV. At the same time, a nonprofit group is making the newly available information on these deals more accessible to the public.

The public has long had the right to see who's buying political TV ads about candidates, ballot measures and even political issues that are not on any ballot. But it hasn't always been convenient.

"You would have had to physically go to your local TV station and open a file drawer and rummage through papers," said Kathy Kiely, managing editor at the Sunlight Foundation, which has partnered with another nonprofit, Free Press, to make political ad buy documents available to the public online.

"They were often disorganized and it is a Herculean task to go back multiple times during a campaign," Kiely said. In early 2012, Sunlight Foundation, Free Press and the nonprofit investigative news website ProPublica began a campaign to get volunteers to visit stations, copy the documents and provide them online.

Two years ago the FCC began a pilot program requiring the four big TV networks in the 50 largest media markets — including Los Angeles — to  post their political ad sales data online.

The FCC program is now expanding to include all broadcast TV stations in all markets.

The Sunlight Foundation/Free Press collaboration is going one step further. It's collecting the broadcast TV ad buy records and making them more searchable on their own website, It is also soliciting volunteers to view the documents and upload details found on them.

What that means is that the public in the Los Angeles area can now go online and see not just the ad buys on NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox, but also independent stations and Spanish language broadcasters like KMEX. Commercial radio and cable television providers must also keep public files of their political ad buyers, but those documents are not included in the online display.

The Ad Sleuth website is still a work in progress. It can be difficult to compile summaries on a single candidate because every TV station names its candidate files something different. The website does not show the amount of money the advertisers spent. It also does not link directly to the ads the money paid to run.

Kiely said the website is meant to help  the public understand how big-money donors are influencing elections by showing who is paying for political TV ads.

The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision permits companies, unions and individuals to independently spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns, but they must report those amounts to the Federal Elections Commission.

She said the website will help the public identify which organizations are using their status as nonprofit organizations to buy political TV ads while keeping the identity of donors confidential. Such organizations don't have to file reports with the Federal Elections Commission, but they do have to list their organizations directors on the FCC disclosure documents when they buy political TV ads.

One of the insights  gleaned from a quick scan of the PoliticalAdSleuth download of Los Angeles market ads is that big TV spending doesn't necessarily dictate a win.

Attorney David Kanuth, who raised nearly $1 million for his campaign for the Westside 33rd Congressional District, ran at least 90 TV ads on local stations. He received only about 1,500 votes and placed near the bottom of a large field of Democratic candidates.

Former Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel, who has lost races for L.A. mayor and the 33rd congressional primary, was the subject of 218 ads in the past two years in those campaigns. Some were paid for by her own campaign committee, others were purchased for and against her by independent expenditure committees.

Ted Lieu, who came out on top in the 33rd Congressional District primary ran just 18 ads on local television.