Historically, television broadcasting regulation in various countries has fallen into one of four broad categories. None of these regulatory frameworks exists in its true form in any country, but these categories provide a general framework for how different governments regulate television.
Authoritarian broadcast regulation is most often seen in countries where there is a strong autocratic government such as a dictatorship or communist regime. The government finances the television system and strictly controls the information and entertainment that is broadcast to the public.
Paternalistic broadcast regulation dictates that TV programming content is to be determined by a combination of free marketplace forces and government regulations. In this type of system, the government feels that public demand will not always lead to television programming that is good for the culture. Government recognizes that television can play a pivotal role in helping a country maintain its national heritage and traditions. As a result, government and not the marketplace must have a stronger role in TV regulation to help serve the public interest.
Permissive broadcast regulation allows for the marketplace to play a dominant role, with limited regulation from the government. Advertising is the dominant source of funding and thus provides citizens with what is known as “free TV.” In a permissive system, public demand and the marketplace are the primary forces determining the content of programming.
Pluralistic broadcast regulation is the “perfect blend” of paternalistic and permissive frameworks, where the government carefully balances the marketplace and the public interest. In the ideal pluralistic setting, television provides programs that not only satisfy the tastes of a diverse public audience but also provide a valuable public service.
Rationale for Regulation of Television Broadcasting and Regulatory Bodies
The US is the world’s model for permissive broadcasting regulation and provides a general model for how other countries view the airwaves. The roots of US TV regulation can be found in the American Constitution’s First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press”. Still, the US model of regulation does not provide for a system free of all government regulation. The Radio Act of 1912 required that all radio operators and transmitters had to be licensed by the federal government. By the 1920s, the airwaves had become cluttered, with radio station signals overlapping, and nearly 1,000 unlicensed radio stations broadcasting across the nation. Such problems led to the Radio Act of 1927. Congress passed the Act to create the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) to oversee the rapidly expanding radio industry. The FRC’s mission was to assign frequencies and to make radio stations serve the public interest with their programming. Most other countries today use similar justifications for government regulation of broadcasting.
Most nations have special bureaus or government agencies that oversee TV broadcasting. For example, in the permissive US, regulatory authority is given to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC also oversees telecommunications such as the telephone. However, in the paternalistic UK, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport oversees broadcasting while a separate entity, the Department of Trade and Industry, regulates telecommunications. Communist China tends to be authoritarian in its television regulation, and the central government controls all telecommunications.
The Communications Act of 1934 is the foundation for US broadcasting regulation today. The Communications Act replaced the FRC with the FCC, which was given the power to oversee “all of the channels of interstate and foreign radio transmission,” including the telephone industry. Local and state governments have no jurisdiction in broadcasting regulation. The 1934 Act states that the FCC is not allowed to “interfere with the right of free speech by the means of radio (and TV) communication.” However, the FCC, Congress, and the courts treat this part of the Act with great flexibility.
A foundation principle for the FCC was the concept of the “public airwaves,” a general idea that has been adopted in one form or another by many nations around the world. The government views the airwaves as a public, not a private, resource. In essence, the government considers the airwaves to be like a public street. Private citizens are allowed to use the street, but the street still belongs to the government. Therefore, the government has the right to pass certain laws about the use of the street.
Serving The Public
In the US, the FCC makes sure stations serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” Other countries have similar mandates for broadcasters. Italy, for example, requires TV stations to “represent the full range of social, cultural, religious and philosophical tendencies”. The US government argues airwave regulation is necessary because of the scarcity rationale. This concept says the public airwaves are a “scarce” resource and need to be regulated and monitored. However, courts in recent years have argued the scarcity rationale may no longer be valid because of the proliferation of other media such as satellite, the Internet, and cable.
The UK government has a paternalistic approach and has traditionally seen TV broadcasting as a public service. Therefore, a main mission of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has been to provide the citizenry with news, information, and education programs. The BBC gets its operating budget from a license fee paid by every household with a TV set. The UK also has three commercial TV networks whose programming is determined more by public taste. At the same time, these commercial networks must still provide time for some “public service” shows. In Australia, the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) makes individual TV stations responsible for serving community interests. Still, the ABA has numerous restrictions. For example, broadcasters are prohibited from airing material that could “incite dissension among ethnic peoples and disrupt national unity.”
In authoritarian systems such as those of Saudi Arabia or the People’s Republic of China, the airwaves are considered a government entity, and programming critical of the government is prohibited. In 2005, for example, the Chinese government announced it was prohibiting any new foreign television programs that promoted “western ideology and politics”. The government said it would also stop granting licenses to foreign satellite channels and would continue its ban on the private ownership of TV satellite dishes. Chinese TV stations may not form partnerships with foreign companies. One of the major goals of authoritarian regulation is to censor any messages or programming that may be considered “subversive” to the ruling party and its political and cultural ideologies.
Regulatory bodies in most countries are given the power to grant licenses to broadcasters and may reject applicants that do not meet government standards. Other regulatory responsibilities often include the allocation of frequencies, the authority to pass rules and regulations, and the power to levy fines on broadcasters that violate rules. In the US, FCC rules may be overturned by the courts or changed through laws passed by Congress. Congress also controls funding for the FCC, which allows Congress to withhold funding to the FCC if law-makers disagree with certain agency policies.
In the US, a person or party may apply for a broadcast license for a new or existing station. The Communications Act states clearly that a broadcasting license is granted “for the use of such channels, but not the ownership thereof, by persons for limited periods of time, under licenses granted by Federal authority.” The person/party must be an American citizen or a company with less than 25 percent foreign ownership. Authoritarian systems tend to allow no foreign ownership of broadcast licenses.
Ownership Issues: The Case of The US
In order to prevent individuals or companies from controlling too many broadcast stations, the FCC has historically instituted ownership rules. These rules limited how many broadcast stations a person could own in a single market or nationwide. In 1940, the FCC began enforcing the duopoly rule, prohibiting one company from owning more than one broadcast station (AM, FM, TV) in any one market. However, the FCC often allowed exceptions to these rules to keep as many stations on the air as possible.
In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC had the right to restrict the power of radio networks, limiting the number of stations directly owned by any one network. This ruling would eventually apply to TV networks as well. However, this ruling did not give the FCC the power to interfere with the local operations of network affiliates.
In 1953, the FCC established the 7-7-7 rule, stating that one party could not own more than 7 AM, 7 FM, and 7 TV stations nationwide, with stations in each medium reaching no more than 25 percent of the national audience. The limits were raised to 12-12-12 in 1985 and 20-20-12 in 1994.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 greatly liberalized broadcast ownership rules. The FCC dropped a prohibition on TV networks owning cable systems but still prohibited the “Big Four” TV networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox) from merging with each other. The Act also allowed the FCC to liberalize the 25 percent national audience limit for TV, which is still a matter of debate. The FCC may no longer prohibit someone from owning a cable system and a TV station in the same market.
Within the next decade, the FCC issued more liberal ownership rules in such areas as newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership and telephone/cable cross-ownership. The commission also relaxed TV network rules to allow a Big Four network to start up its own smaller network or to merge with an emerging TV network. Smaller TV networks may also now merge with each other.
In the US, the FCC is prohibited from “censoring” TV programming, but courts have upheld certain content regulations that serve the “public interest.” The FCC enforces political broadcasting rules such as Section 315 or the “equal time” rule. If a station gives or sells time to one candidate for public office, the station must also give or sell time to every other legally qualified candidate running for that same office. This rule ensures that broadcasters do not use the power of the airwaves to favor one candidate over another.
Broadcasters are not obligated to provide free airtime to any candidate unless the station has offered free time to an opposing candidate. For the most part, stations are not allowed to censor political ads. Also, in specified time periods before primaries and general elections, stations are required to offer candidates the lowest advertising rates. Section 315 does not apply to news reports, so a candidate’s appearance in a news story does not obligate a station to provide “equal time” to opposing candidates. Stations must also abide by the “reasonable access rule,” providing reasonable amounts of advertising time to federal candidates. Stations must keep public files detailing how they have followed political broadcasting rules and also how they have served the public interest in general.
In some countries, politicians are granted free airtime before elections. The rules are varied. In Azerbaijan, political parties with more than 60 candidates get free airtime on state-owned media. Smaller parties say such rules give an unfair advantage to larger established parties. In the US, broadcast debates between candidates are exempt from “equal time” restrictions, thus broadcasters usually choose to have only the major party candidates participate. Candidates from smaller parties say this system is discriminatory, helping to keep the major parties in power.
The FCC more directly regulates content through indecency rules, punishing broadcasters that air “patently offensive” material relating to “sexual or excretory activities or organs at a time of day when children are likely to be in the audience.”
Current indecency regulation had its genesis in a 1978 Supreme Court case involving the afternoon radio broadcast of comedian George Carlin’s monologue “Filthy words,” in which Carlin frequently repeated seven “dirty words.” The Court ruled that the FCC had the right to fine broadcasters who aired indecent material during daytime and evening hours, saying such regulation was justified in protecting children from indecent material.
According to the FCC, indecent material includes foul language, nudity, and sexual innuendo. In February 2004, the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” occurred during the CBS broadcast of the Super Bowl. During halftime, singer Justin Timberlake tore away a part of singer Janet Jackson’s costume, briefly revealing her bare breast. Congress reacted by passing legislation that greatly increased indecency fines and included possible license revocation for repeat offenders. The FCC later fined CBS $550,000 for the incident, although the network in 2006 said it would contest the fine.
The “wardrobe malfunction” would not violate government standards in countries such as Japan, Brazil, and Germany, where nudity is considered less objectionable than in the US. On the opposite end of the spectrum are authoritarian systems like that of China, where indecent or offensive material is strictly prohibited. In 2005, the Chinese government banned prime-time shows with crime or violence in an effort to protect children and to “safeguard national cultural safety.”
In the US, the courts have ruled that the FCC does not have jurisdiction to enforce indecency rules on other media such as satellite services, cable TV, newspaper, the Internet, and telephone. That is because these media do not operate on the public airwaves. In Europe, though, regulators tend to make no differentiation between broadcasting and cable and satellite. EU standards state that member countries should avoid broadcasts that are indecent, pornographic, racist, or violent. Shows that are “likely to impair the development of children” are to be scheduled at later hours. However, standards of “decency” are determined by each EU country.
Authoritarian countries tend to extend indecency regulation to the Internet as well. In Saudi Arabia, the Council of Ministers requires anyone using the Internet to avoid “any activities violating the social, cultural, political, media, economic, and religious values of the Kingdom.” Persons must also get permission from the government before sending or receiving coded information. China blocks citizen access to a wide variety of Internet sites deemed by the government to be inappropriate or indecent.
Cable, Satellite, and Advertising Regulation
The FCC and the courts approach regulation of cable and satellite with more of a “handsoff” approach, saying that these media do not operate on the “public airwaves” and are therefore exempt from most content regulations. However, cable and satellite operators must still abide by political broadcasting rules. Both most also follow “must-carry” rules, requiring them to carry local broadcast stations on their services. The FCC says such protections are necessary for broadcasters because of their roles in serving the public interest. There are similar must-carry rules in the EU, requiring cable systems to carry a variety of broadcast stations.
In the US, most cable regulation is done at the local level through franchises, where local governments help determine service standards and whether the cable system must provide “access” channels for local public interest programming. The FCC has the right to fine cable and satellite operators that violate FCC policies.
Many countries have separate government agencies that oversee advertising on television. For example, in Denmark, the Radio and Television Advertising Commission reviews citizen complaints about ad content. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) punishes false and misleading advertising. Otherwise, most governments avoid content regulation of commercial speech.
One major exception is advertising for tobacco. In 1965, the UK banned all TV ads for cigarettes, but did allow TV ads for cigars and other tobacco products until 1991. The US Congress in 1970 banned cigarette ads on radio and TV, saying such a ban was necessary to protect the public health and to discourage tobacco use. Broadcast ads for smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco) were banned in 1986. The US continues to allow broadcast ads for other smoking products such as pipe tobacco and cigars. The 1998 Tobacco Settlement added new restrictions, such as prohibiting cigarette companies from paying to have their brands used by characters in TV shows.
A majority of countries restrict TV ads for cigarettes. In the early 1990s, the European Union (EU) banned all TV cigarette advertising. In July 2005, the EU Tobacco Advertising Directive extended the cigarette ad ban to radio, the Internet, and print media. Japan began banning brand-specific cigarette ads on TV and all other electronic media, including the Internet. However, the law still allows cigarette ads on the electronic media as long as the ads do not show cigarettes or include brand names.
International and Regional Agencies
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), founded in 1865, is an international body comprised of roughly 200 countries. The ITU’s constitution says the organization’s mission is to “promote the extension of the benefits of the new telecommunication technologies to all the world’s inhabitants.” The ITU is a United Nations organization and works to minimize technical interference between broadcast and satellite services in different countries.
There are also agencies that deal with telecommunications issues on a regional basis. Two examples are the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). However, membership in such agencies often extends beyond their regions. Roughly 100 countries belong to the ABU, including members from Europe and North America. Like similar regional agencies, the ABU represents its members’ interests with other regional agencies as well as with groups like the ITU. Such regional groups also provide technical advice and support to members.
- Aster, H. (ed.) (1992). Challenges for international broadcasting. New York: Mosaic.
- Jacobs, G. (ed.) (2005). World radio TV handbook: The directory of global broadcasting. Oxford:
- Paraschos, M. (1997). Media law and regulation in the European Union: National, transnational, and US perspectives. Ames, IO: Iowa State University Press.
- Powell, J. (1985). International broadcasting by satellite: Issues of regulation, barriers to communication. Westport, CT: Quorum.
- Sadler, R. (2005). Electronic media law. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Smith, A., & Paterson, R. (eds.) (1998). Television: An international history. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Taylor, P. (1997). Global communications, international affairs and the media since 1945. London: Routledge.