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Broadcasting, Government Regulation of - Broadcast Industry Self-Regulation, Rationales for Broadcast Regulation

airwaves public media act

The system of broadcast regulation by the U.S. government evolved from the early twentieth century into an intricate web of influences that include government agencies, courts, citizen groups, and the industry itself. These entities work in concert to shape the regulation of broadcast content, networking, technology, advertising, ownership, public-interest obligations, community relations, and other aspects of the broadcast business.

Broadcast Industry Self-Regulation

In order to keep outside regulation at a minimum, the broadcasting industry undertakes measures of self-regulation, including voluntary programming ratings; voluntary screening of violent, indecent, and otherwise inappropriate program content; and refusal to accept advertising selling such items as cigarettes and hard liquor. These actions, like those taken under the Codes of Practice of the National Association of Broadcasters in the mid-1900s, have served to restrain the government from regulating what the industry has already been self-regulating.

Rationales for Broadcast Regulation

Broadcast regulation, despite basic First Amendment protection for the press, grew and evolved as each succeeding act of legislation attempted to shape and control the burgeoning industry. Five rationales for regulating broadcasting introduced in the Radio Act of 1927 and carried forward in the Communications Act of 1934 have endured.

The first rationale for broadcast regulation is the notion that the public owns the airwaves. Therefore, the public, represented by its government, is entitled to demand that the airwaves be used in the public interest. The second rationale, consequently, is that a licensed broadcaster is merely a trustee of the publicly owned airwaves and therefore must act as the public’s proxy while using the public resource.

The third rationale, scarcity of the airwaves, suggests that the government must regulate the assignment and use of the airwaves because there are a limited number of useable frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum. From this, it follows that government has the right to deny or revoke a broadcaster’s license to use a frequency, so long as that action is in the public interest.

Media uniqueness, the fourth rationale, claims that the broadcast media have a more “captive” audience than do print media. Behind this rationale is the assumption that users of broadcast media will be less likely to actively select and scrutinize the messages that are received via broadcasting. Therefore, it is important that the government ensure that these unique media are programming in the public interest.

The fifth rationale for broadcast regulation addresses the very nature of the airwaves. It states that the airwaves do not have the traditional physical boundaries that other, more tangible means of communication share. Consequently, because broadcast messages are more pervasive, their potential for social influence is great. It is this potential that allows the government to regulate broadcasting and limit, to some extent, its First Amendment protection.

Broadcasting, Self-Regulation of - The National Association of Broadcasters Codes of Practices, Broadcast Standards and Practices [next]

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