Whether you’re a connoisseur or critic of televised political ads, it’s about to get a lot easier to find out who’s buying them and how much they paid. 

Beginning July 1, television stations will have to post political ad buy information at a designated Federal Communications Commission website, according to an April 4 public notice sent from the FCC to television broadcasters. The FCC reminder follows action taken in 2012 that made it so network affiliates (NBC, ABC, FOX, CBS) in the country’s top 50 media markets had to post their so-called "public file" on the FCC site to enable the public to view specific ad buys, run times and purchasers. The information provides an easier path for transparency. While the information was public before, stations were not required to send the information upon request. Viewing the documents required a trip to the station and request for the information. 

The 2012 mandate excluded broadcasters outside of the top 50, meaning Maine televisions stations did things the old fashioned way during the presidential and congressional races. That changes on July 1, when all broadcasters, including those not affiliated with the major networks, have to begin sending their public file to the FCC.

Ready inspection of the public file is good news for journalists, too. In 2012, for example, a strange ad surfaced during the U.S. Senate race that talked up Democratic candidate Cynthia Dill’s progressive credentials. The spot seemed to have been drafted through the Republican lens of what Democrats want — she’s aligned with Obama! Pro-labor! Tough on guns! — but the connection would have been difficult to prove had it not been for the public file, which listed Michael Adams as the treasurer of Maine Freedom, the group that purchased the ad.

Adams was also the general counsel for the Republican Governors Association (Adams is also listed as the treasurer for the RGA Maine political action committee for this year’s race). Why was a Republican organization, Maine Freedom, running an ad supporting Dill? Because Republican candidate Charlie Summers’ path to victory was driving a wedge through the support for independent front runner Angus King. In other words, Summers could win if Dill put in a strong performance and split the progressive vote. The ad’s message — Dill is the real progressive in the race — attempted to do just that.

Journalists may not have been able to definitively prove the motive without access to the public file.