The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the regulatory agency in the United States charged with oversight of electronic communications. Since the 1980s, it has taken much of the blame for the lack of diversity and the concentration of ownership in US broadcasting, and the rise of media conglomerates. The FCC has a larger range of responsibilities and more autonomy than regulators in other industrialized countries. It was partially the model for the consolidation in 2003 of British regulatory agencies into one communications regulator, OFCOM, which, like the FCC, has a laissez-faire approach.
Since its creation, the commission has been controversial, largely because it was formed through conflicting philosophies. It was meant to uphold the decision of Congress following World War I that broadcasting should be mostly commercial and free of government control; but also to ensure that access to the airwaves was allocated responsibly and that those granted access put the public’s interest before their own.
History And Structure
The agency was created on June 19, 1934, when Congress passed the Communications Act. It was formed from its predecessor the Federal Radio Commission, along with parts of the Interstate Commerce Commission and Postmaster General. It was organized into a broadcast, telegraph, and telephone division (it has been reorganized since), but the overall entity is directed by five commissioners (it was seven until 1983). They are appointed by each president, but only three can be from the president’s party. With the chairman and two members essentially working for the president, broadcast policy has been kept in alignment with ruling party ideology in the US, and less mainstream ideologies are effectively locked out of policymaking. Ironically, the FCC is constituted so as to enable it to act with considerable autonomy from the executive branch.
The Communications Act has been amended many times but still dictates most US communications policy and determines most of what the FCC does. Key broadcast laws, including the public service requirement, came into effect with the Radio Act of 1927, but these were incorporated in the 1934 law. Importantly, section 326 within Title III of the Act prevents the FCC from censoring broadcasting in the US, although modern debates about media content have suggested that threats of penalties for certain content serve as a form of control tantamount to censorship. This received attention in 2004 when singer Janet Jackson revealed a breast – allegedly accidentally – in the most-watched annual US television event, the “Superbowl.” Under political pressure, the FCC reacted with record fines, and US broadcasters subsequently became extraordinarily cautious, especially when airing live events.
The best-known and perhaps most crucial function of the FCC has been to license broadcast stations and ensure that basic regulations are adhered to. It does so through its authority over use of the radio spectrum. In the 1969 Red Lion case the Supreme Court reaffirmed that FCC actions to ensure broadcasters serve the public are not a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. In practice, broadcasters have wide leeway in what they can and cannot do, and fines for breaching regulations are rare; revocations of licenses or denials of license renewal are rarer. Grassroots organizations such as Rocky Mountain Media Watch have worked to catalog license violations by stations and derail the nearly automatic renewal process, but such efforts have yet to significantly improve standards. In one of few license denials for failure to serve the public interest, in 1969
Mississippi television station WLBT had its license revoked for bias against African Americans, following years of complaints by citizens’ groups; this only happened after the FCC was ordered to do so by a federal appeals court.
In 1962 the FCC was given authority over satellite communications in the US (although international satellite communications are governed by treaty). Its influence over the cable television industry was gradually increased with the Cable Act of 1992 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Media Bureau of the FCC licenses and regulates broadcasters and enforces cable television regulations. Separate bureaus deal with telephone communications, wireless services, and satellite communications.
Through its history the FCC has sought to increase the diversity of views available in US broadcasting – with the presumption that doing so is in the public interest. The cross-ownership, duopoly, prime-time access (PTAR), and syndication and financial interest rules are examples. Rules restricted how many broadcast outlets one company could own, locally and nationally, but these have been relaxed to the point that it is now possible for one corporation to own up to a third of broadcast outlets in the US and reach nearly all the audience. Since the same corporate entities dominate most other information and cultural products used by the US audience, the worst fears of critics of media consolidation, like Bagdikian (2004), seem close to realization.
Philosophy And Decisions
The philosophy of letting profit, rather than quality, be the determinant of who is permitted to broadcast in the US began under Democrat President Carter prior to 1980, but the approach has been aggressively pursued and expanded under Republican presidents and congresses since. Since the 1980s and the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the FCC has aggressively deregulated. Mark Fowler, an FCC chairman under Reagan, was one of the most influential proponents of this philosophy. He is remembered for his assertions that “the public interest is what interests the public” (as opposed to something governments should determine and protect), and that television is “just another appliance – it’s a toaster with pictures.” By denying television’s social and cultural role in snappy quotes, Fowler empowered himself and the conservative FCC chairs that followed to decimate 50 years of regulation intended to police that role.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996, in particular, was promoted by Congress and the FCC as a public benefit because of its potential to increase competition, but it did the opposite – resulting in mergers, increased concentration of control over mass communications, a lack of local radio programming and reduction in local television production, and increased cable television costs with little content diversity. It was also made more difficult for the FCC to deny a license.
The role of the FCC as a catalyst for economic and technological change has been a point of contention. While it was not originally given this mandate, presidents have sought to use it for these purposes; critics charge this happens only in support of their narrow political and economic interests. Robert McChesney (2004) has argued that starting with the 1934 Communications Act, the profit-making potential of companies has been the main criteria used by the FCC in permitting entities to broadcast, rather than ill-defined efforts to serve the public interest. Indeed, there has been little opportunity for public input in policymaking, and when further relaxation of ownership rules was proposed in 2003 the FCC held only one official public hearing. But the public demonstrated a new interest in communications policy when a broad coalition of groups, and nearly one million citizens from across the political spectrum, sent messages to the FCC to demand an end to further deregulation. The changes were still passed, but were rejected in a court challenge.
US communications policy has been as much determined by courts as by the FCC. Courts have sometimes upheld the agency’s broad latitude to make policy, and sometimes castigated it for going beyond its remit or ignoring the consequences of its actions. The FCC has taken some steps to ensure minority representation in the broadcast industry and minority ownership of broadcast outlets, although the latter rules were relaxed in recent deregulation. A number of rules have been aimed at protecting children. Limits on the amount of commercials in children’s programming were strengthened by the Children’s Television Act of 1990, but critics charge that much of what passes for children’s television in the US is essentially long-form commercials.
An important aspect of deregulation was the FCC’s rejection of the Fairness Doctrine, a rule that stated that broadcasters must give equal time to both sides of a controversial issue. Media corporations argued it had a “chilling effect,” causing broadcasters to avoid controversial issues. In 1987 the FCC repealed it, and a new breed of political broadcasting captured much of the radio audience; opening the way to conservative cable television outlets like Fox News. Until the advent of the left-leaning Air America radio network in 2004, all of the new one-sided political broadcasting had a right wing – occasionally reactionary or racist – perspective, and reinforced the platforms of the Republican presidents and members of Congress making policy (Aufderheide 1990; Hilliard & Keith 1999; Barker & Knight 2000; McChensney 2004; groups like fair.org and mediamatters.org have documented these trends). Critics of the FCC have observed that as the White House attempted to convince the public of the need to invade Iraq, media with the most to gain from the further relaxation of ownership rules largely abandoned neutrality and critical news coverage and fueled support for war (for example, Boyd-Barrett 2005).
Broadcasting in the US has historically been dominated by networks, although the power of these has decreased in the last decade due to market fragmentation. The FCC does not have authority over networks, so has sought to control them through the regulation of stations. Legal scholars have argued that Congress was “eloquently vague” (Pember & Calvert 2005, 589) in defining what the FCC should do, providing room for interpretation to adapt to a fast-changing communications landscape. But the 1934 mandate that broadcasters serve “the public interest, convenience, or necessity” has never been aggressively interpreted by an agency which that critics argue was co-opted from the outset by the industry it was to regulate. FCC chairman Newton Minow (1961–1963) famously called television broadcasting “a vast wasteland,” (Messere 2005) but his challenge to broadcasters to raise their standards has never been taken up.
Low-power radio broadcasting can take place within local communities and there is broad agreement that it usually does not interfere with other broadcasting, but the FCC, under pressure from business, has aggressively banned it and sent armed agents to close amateur radio stations. In 2000, the FCC finally permitted some low-power stations, but continued to ban them from cities. And it is noteworthy that while the FCC is nominally a domestic agency, its officials have worked in other countries to influence broadcast policy to the benefit of US corporations (Paterson 1994).
O’Siochru and Girard (2002) observed that, globally, media regulation has been oriented either toward regulation of media as an economic sector, or toward the enrichment of society through the promotion of diversity and plurality. The US model has always sought to do both, but while the FCC’s enabling legislation emphasizes a social and political role, it has played mostly an economic one; shifting to an almost entirely economic role in service to the media industry since the 1980s.
- Aufderheide, P. (1990). After the fairness doctrine: Controversial broadcast programming and the public interest. Journal of Communication, 40(3), 47–72.
- Bagdikian, B. (2004). The new media monopoly. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Barker, D., & Knight, K. (2000). Political talk radio and public opinion. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 64(2) 149 –170.
- Beckerman, G. (2003). Tripping up big media. Columbia Journalism Review, Nov/Dec.
- Boyd-Barrett, O. (2005). Journalism, media conglomerates and the federal communication commission. In S. Allan (ed.), Journalism: Critical issues. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press, pp. 342 –356.
- Hilliard, R., & Keith, M. (1999). Waves of rancor: Tuning in the radical right. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
- Horowitz, R. (1989). The irony of regulatory reform. New York: Oxford University Press.
- McChesney, R. (2004). The problem of the media: US communication politics in the 21st century. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Messere, F. (2005). Federal Communications Commission. In H. Newcomb (ed.), Encyclopedia of television. New York: Routledge, pp. 864 – 870.
- O’Siochru, S., & Girard, B. (2002). Global media governance: A beginner’s guide. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Paglin, M. (ed.) (1989). A legislative history of the Communications Act of 1934. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Paterson, C. (1994). Remaking South African broadcasting: In America’s image. FAIR Extra, Jan/ Feb, 22 –23.
- Pember, D., & Calvert, C. (2005). Mass media law. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
- Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 US 367 (1969). At www.epic.org/free_speech/red_lion.html, accessed August 13, 2007.
- Rocky Mountain Media Watch Archive. At www.bigmedia.com, accessed August 13, 2007.
- Schwartman, A. (1990). The FCC and the Fowler years. Television Quarterly, Fall.