Tracking political spending on television ads just got easier

July 1, 2014
Category: Uncategorized

Starting today, all TV and radio stations must send records of political advertising buys to the FCC.  Until now, only 230 stations in the top 50 markets had to file the records online. Starting today, more than 2,000 stations will turn over their records.

It has been a long battle to make it easier for the public to see who is paying for political TV ads, many of them attack ads launched by somebody other than the candidates themselves.  ProPublica has spent two years trying to “free the files.” Other groups have hammered away at broadcast stations for not disclosing what they should about who is buying ads.

Now, the nonprofit and nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation is making it easier to examine the records that involve billions of dollars in ad buys. Sunlight launched which makes it easy to see where special interest groups are spending their money to buy airtime.  This year, much of the ad money is going toward issue campaigns.  Look at North Carolina as an example, where in the last 7 days, TV stations report robust political ad sales.

Why Is The Search Tool Important to Journalists?

“Since the Supreme Court ruled on the Citizen’s United case, we have seen more political groups organizing as Social Welfare Non-Profit groups so they don’t have to register with Federal Election Commission,” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor at the Sunlight Foundation. “They keep their donors secret and they can keep their spending off the Federal Election Commission’s books. There are many people who give money who would rather it not be known. They could be corporations or corporate leaders. They might be your local toxic waste dump masquerading as Americans for Better Apple Pie and you might not know why they want you to vote a certain way.”

Why would a group organize as a social welfare nonprofit group rather than a Political Action Committee? PACs must file donor records with the government. But charities don’t have to. Charities, or nonprofits that take in $25,000 a year or more, file an I-990 form that shows how the charity spends money but does not name who gives the money.

The Sunlight Foundation’s new tool is just a step toward unwrapping mysteries, not a full disclosure. In addition to searching individual ad buys, you can use the tool to see where else a PAC or social welfare nonprofit group is buying ads.

“You can enter the name of a candidate, committee and see where they are active, Kieley said. “A lot of these groups are active across states.”

“An example is Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which has not reported a single TV ad buy during the 2014 cycle to the FEC, even though Sunlight’s ad tracking tools show that the group has been extremely active in swing states, especially North Carolina and Michigan,” said Kieley.”Are the ads AFP is running campaign ads? Not according to the letter of the law, but you can check out the videos captured by Sunlight’s Political Ad Hawk and judge for yourselves.”

Using the tool

Let me walk you through how to use the political ad sleuth tool.

If we open the file on Charlotte, North Carolina TV station reports, we see that the network affiliated stations have written lots of contracts for political ads in the last week.  To get details on each contract just click on the contract.  Let’s open the first one listed on the page, an ad buy on WBTV. (The Click on the “open original document” file and you will see the actual $71,900 ad contract between the TV station and Waterfront Strategies, an ad buyer for super-PACs.)

But we want to know who is paying the ad buyer.  I have marked up the contract to show you where to look for that information. Different invoices use slightly different formats, but you get the idea from this one.  I have placed boxes over the ad agency and the advertiser/buyer.


So the advertiser is Women Vote. You can use another tool called InfluenceExplorer to find out more about the group.

InfluenceExplorer gives us background on Women Vote which has spent about $2.3 million in the 2013-2014 election cycle.

You can see what races the group has been involved with in recent years too.

Now let’s find what other races where Women’s Vote has been buying ads. We will use the Advanced Search tool that looks like this.

Screen shot 2014-07-01 at 3.26.33 PM

Hit “Search” and you will see this group has bought ads on TV stations in Wisconsin, Missouri and other states. You can see who the group supports and opposes around the country.


Now keep in mind, there is nothing illegal, unethical or out of the ordinary about these buys. These tools are not revealing dark secrets or influence peddling. It is just that, before now, you would have had to go to a TV station and ask to see these files then somehow make your own copies of them to take home an analyze.  Now you can see them instantly.

On their face, they are probably unremarkable, after all you can see the ads on TV and everybody who sees them knows they are not free.  But it is a way to find out who those groups are that run all of those ads that fill the airwaves and it is a way to find out what ads are on the way, who is about to heat things up.

The next big step to making these records truly useful will be to ask the broadcasters not to submit PDFs of the contracts to the FCC but to put the information into spreadsheets, like Excel files, so they could be easily sorted and mapped.

If you use this tool to report stories, we would love for you to drop us a link in the comment section and let us know about your experience.


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