The Sunlight Foundation, along with Common Cause and the Campaign Legal Center, have filed with the FCC complaints against 18 TV stations claiming that these stations violated the FCC’s sponsorship identification rules by not identifying former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg as the true sponsor of issue ads bought by the Independence USA political action committee.  The complaint (available on the Foundation’s website as part of a press release on the action) alleges that stations have an obligation to look behind the named organizational sponsor to identify Mr. Bloomberg as the true sponsor of these ads, as he has provided all of the organization’s funding and directs its actions.  These same organizations filed a similar set of complaints last year, some also targeting Mr. Bloomberg and the PAC with which he is associated, complaints which, for the most part, remain pending at the FCC (see our article here).

These complaints are very similar to the ones filed in 2014, arguing that where a PAC is 100% financed by a single individual, the individual should be identified on the air as the sponsor, not the PAC itself.  The petitioners claim that, by not identifying Mr. Bloomberg as the true sponsor, the public is deceived as to who is behind the ads.  This is despite the fact that, in the required sponsorship disclosure statements filed in the stations’ public files, Mr. Bloomberg is identified, as required by the rules, as the Chairman of the PAC and as one of its two officers.  Apparently, this required disclosure is deemed insufficient by these groups.  But what will the FCC think?
Continue Reading More Complaints Filed Against TV Stations for Allegedly Not Disclosing the True Sponsor of PAC Ad on Political Issues

A bill introduced in the House of Representatives last week proposes that the FCC be required to amend its sponsorship identification rules to require not just the name of the sponsor of an ad addressing “a controversial issue of public importance,” but also the names of any “significant donors” to the

Even though the election is over, political broadcasting issues have not stopped.  Yesterday, the same groups (the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, and the Sunlight Foundation) that had previously objected to the sponsorship identification of issue ads funded by PACs with a limited donor base have struck again.  This time, they have filed a complaint with the FCC against a Chicago TV station claiming that it should have identified former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg as the true sponsor of an ad run by a PAC. That PAC stated on its website that it had been formed by the former mayor and, from its FEC filings, it appears that it was 100% funded by Mr. Bloomberg.

The complaint differs from complaints filed earlier this year about similar ads in that, in this case, the station was given written notice by the Petitioner of the claim that the sponsorship identification should have included Mr. Bloomberg.  In previous cases, no such notice had been given to the station (the lack of such prior notice resulting in the FCC’s rejection of the initial set of complaints filed by this group, see our article here).  In addition, this is the first complaint where it appears that the PAC in question was 100% funded by a single individual.  See, for instance, our article here, where we asked in connection with previous complaints where the PACs in question were not 100% funded by a single individual how a station was supposed to know at what point the individual donor needed to be identified, and when there were a sufficient number of other donors that the identification of the groups as the true sponsor was proper.  Will these factual differences mandate a different result from the FCC?
Continue Reading The Election is Over, But the Complaints Keep Coming – Should Michael Bloomberg Have Been Identified as the True Sponsor of an Ad Run by his PAC?

Just a month ago, the FCC denied complaints alleging that Washington DC  TV stations had not adequately identified the true sponsor of political ads sponsored by a political action committee.  When that decision came down – denied on procedural grounds by the Commission – we warned that it opened the door to more complaints in the current election cycle.  Sure enough, a new complaint has been filed against one of the same DC stations, contending that in the current election cycle, it should have gone beyond the sponsorship identification of the PAC itself as the sponsor of the ad, and instead identified the sponsor as the individual who contributed the majority of the PAC’s funding. 

The complaint, filed by the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation, the same DC public interest groups that filed the previous complaints, alleges that WJLA-TV failed in identifying the true sponsor of ads by the Next Gen Climate Action Committee as Tom Steyer, the individual who they allege (based on FEC disclosures) provided the majority of the funding for the PAC.  In last month’s decision, the FCC rejected a similar petition about the same PAC, deciding not to pursue the complaint as the station was not directly put on notice of the allegations raised in the complaints before the ads ran.  In the new petition, the petitioners don’t allege that they made any contact with the station to alert the station about their new complaints.  Instead, the complaint alleges that the TV station should have known about the issues because it is the same PAC that was named in last year’s complaint, and the station should have known about the petitioners allegations that the sponsorship tag is incorrect.  But is there a real issue here?
Continue Reading Another FCC Complaint about the True Sponsor of a PAC Political Ad – What’s a Station to Do?

Get ready for more challenges to issue ads that you may be receiving this election season.  The FCC’s Media Bureau today released a brief decision on the Sunlight Foundation’s complaint petition against two TV stations concerning the proper sponsorship identification for ads by Political Action Committees.  We wrote about those complaints when they were filed back in July, here.  The complaints, arising from elections that took place last year, targeted two PACs that each had single individuals who had donated substantially all of the money that was raised by the PAC.  Sunlight claimed that the stations should have tagged as the true sponsors of the ads the individuals who had provided virtually all of the money for the PACs.  Sunlight alleged that these stations should have known who the true sponsors of the ads were, based on news reports that were run on the stations talking about the individuals who had funded the PACs.  Instead, the stations had run sponsorship identifications identifying only the PACs as the sponsors of the ads. 

In today’s action, the Bureau dismissed the complaints.  However, the Bureau did not find Sunlight’s allegations to be incorrect.  Instead, the complaints were dismissed because Sunlight never went to the stations to ask that they change the sponsorship identification on the PAC spots during the course of the election.  The Bureau stated that it was using its “prosecutorial discretion” not to pursue these complaints, going so far as to say that the ruling might have been different had the request for a proper identification been made to the stations during the course of the election.
Continue Reading Identification of Sponsors of Non-Candidate Political Ads May Be More Controversial This Election Season as FCC Suggests that Broadcasters May Need to Determine Who is Behind Third Party Ads

Public interest groups are actively watching broadcast political advertising which could make this a very interesting year for broadcasters.  The Sunlight Foundation, which only two months ago filed complaints against 11 television stations for alleged inadequacies in their online political files (see our summary here), has now filed two new complaints alleging that television stations violated FCC rules in recent elections by not identifying the true sponsor of political ads.  In each complaint, Sunlight alleged that ads were tagged as having been sponsored by Political Action Committees, but in each case the true sponsor who should have been identified was the wealthy individual who had contributed all of the funds to the PAC.  Sunlight’s press release about the complaints is available here, and contains links to the complaints themselves.  Is this complaint valid?

The complaint focuses on the language in Section 317 of the Communications Act which requires that when a station broadcasts any content and “consideration is directly or indirectly paid, or promised to or charged or accepted by, the station so broadcasting, from any person,” that person must be identified.  While it seems clear from FCC precedent that person does not mean individual person, as corporations or other legal entities can certainly be sponsors, the compliant submits that this situation is different.  Why?  Because, the petitioners argue, the PACs involved in these cases (one supporting a Republican candidate, the other supporting a Democrat) were effectively each an alter ego for a single individual who provided all the funds for the PAC.  But how is the TV station supposed to know?
Continue Reading FCC Complaints Filed Against TV Stations for Not Identifying the True Sponsor of Political Ads