Federal Communications Commission Is Established by Congress Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Congress created the Federal Communications Commission in response to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s desire to consolidate regulatory powers over communications. The organization became an important testing ground for ideas about the First Amendment and the role of advertising in American culture.

Summary of Event

The Radio Act of 1927 Radio Act (1927) created the Federal Radio Commission Federal Radio Commission (FRC), which sought to ensure that radio broadcasting served the public interest. The FRC had the central authority to grant licenses to radio stations, however, and it soon faced a regulatory nightmare. Radio broadcasters with long histories enjoyed a favored status that they vigorously fought to retain, many radio stations were broadcasting on frequencies reserved for Canada, and several unregulated amateurs had ventured into radio broadcasting. To add to these problems, the FRC had been created on a temporary basis; its authority was assured for only one year. As a result, its life had to be extended annually through a congressional renewal process that was used to impose restrictions on the FRC. For example, the Davis Amendment to the 1928 congressional renewal of the Radio Act severely restricted the FRC by requiring it to divide licenses and broadcast frequencies equally across five geographic zones. [kw]Federal Communications Commission Is Established by Congress (June 10, 1934) [kw]Communications Commission Is Established by Congress, Federal (June 10, 1934) [kw]Commission Is Established by Congress, Federal Communications (June 10, 1934) [kw]Congress, Federal Communications Commission Is Established by (June 10, 1934) Federal Communications Commission Communictions Act (1934) [g]United States;June 10, 1934: Federal Communications Commission Is Established by Congress[08650] [c]Communications and media;June 10, 1934: Federal Communications Commission Is Established by Congress[08650] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 10, 1934: Federal Communications Commission Is Established by Congress[08650] [c]Radio and television;June 10, 1934: Federal Communications Commission Is Established by Congress[08650] Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;Federal Communications Commission Roper, Daniel C. McManamy, Frank Sykes, Eugene O. Van Deerlin, Lionel

Although such congressional mandates elicited protests from President Herbert Hoover, the regulation of broadcasting remained in this unsatisfactory state until 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed Daniel C. Roper, the U.S. secretary of commerce, to study radio broadcasting. In January, 1934, a committee chaired by Roper recommended that the communications-oriented regulatory activities of the FRC (which centered on radio frequencies), the Interstate Commerce Commission (focused on the telephone, telegraph, and cable), the postmaster general, and the president be consolidated into a single regulatory body. Extensive congressional hearings followed. Witnesses offered testimony, including Frank McManamy, chairman of the legislative committee of the Interstate Commerce Commission, and Eugene O. Sykes, chairman of the Federal Radio Commission. As a result of the hearings, Congress enacted the Communications Act of 1934, which established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Congress directed the FCC to uphold the “public interest, convenience, and necessity” in regard to broadcasting, the same mandate that it had imposed on the FRC. This mandate had the potential to curb the broadcasters’ rights to free speech rights, which had been guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For example, a central theme of the Communications Act was that the airwaves should serve the needs and interests of the public, and so broadcast licensees were expected to be “socially responsible.” This idea found expression in many FCC policies relating to broadcast-media content, including the fairness doctrine, which stipulated that opportunities should be provided for expression of opposing viewpoints about any topic of public importance, and FCC policy statements on scheduling television programs for children. Such policies were applied only to the broadcast-media context and would be construed as illegal censorship in a print-media context. Court rulings reconciled this apparent anomaly by perpetuating the view that government supervision of broadcast content is more acceptable than review of print outlets. This interpretation underscored complaints that the broadcast media enjoyed less First Amendment protection than did the print media.

A basic justification for the “socially responsible” orientation of broadcast regulations enforced by the FCC was that the right of the public to receive useful and unbiased information should outweigh the First Amendment rights of broadcast licensees to be free of government control. According to this view, the broadcasting media are “scarce” because of the finite range of airwave frequencies available for licensing. In addition, the ability to reach mass audiences bestows broadcast licensees with substantial power to influence public opinion. Under these circumstances, Congress decided that it was appropriate to allow some form of government control to ensure that broadcasts served the public interest.

Significance

The FCC consisted of seven commissioners and several professional or middle-level staff personnel. Over the years, both these groups substantially influenced the direction and thrust of FCC policies. Analysis has suggested that the education and occupational background of FRC and FCC commissioners were key variables that affected decisions in these administrative agencies. In contrast to the commissioners, who directly administer broadcast policy, FCC staff members influence policy matters indirectly by controlling the content and flow of information provided to commissioners before they make their decisions.

Broadcast regulation is an intensely political enterprise, and studies found that the political orientation of FCC commissioners strongly affected FCC regulation activities. For example, the speeches of Commissioner Newton Minow in the early 1960’s reflected the political stance of John F. Kennedy’s presidential administration toward enforcing stricter regulation of broadcast programming. In the 1980’s, under the leadership of Mark Fowler, the FCC reflected a deep commitment to follow President Ronald Reagan’s political philosophy that government should make regulations less intrusive. The FCC’s policies and actions changed over time to accommodate the philosophies of elected officials. Because commissioners were appointed and because the Communications Act of 1934 required that no more than four commissioners share a party affiliation, virtually every president tried to select commissioners who agreed with the administration’s philosophy and policy objectives, regardless of party identification.

Politically driven changes in FCC policy were instrumental in the evolution of a new form of commercial communication labeled “program-length commercials” or PLCs (also called infomercials). Infomercials PLCs are commercials that usually resemble regular television talk show or documentary programs in both content and length. In the early 1970’s, the FCC expressed concern over broadcast of PLCs because they had the potential to subordinate public-interest programming to commercial programming. The commission launched two policy initiatives to outlaw PLCs. First, widespread concern over television advertising directed toward children led the FCC to stress the need for distinguishing between program content and advertising material. The FCC expressed concern over children’s shows that focused on particular toys, which were sometimes characters in animated shows. Second, the commission adopted a limit of sixteen minutes of commercial matter per broadcast hour. The FCC reversed this policy in 1984 by eliminating quantitative advertising guidelines for television broadcasting on the grounds that marketplace forces were adequate to regulate the level of advertising. Then, as part of the broadcast deregulation effort launched by the Reagan administration, the FCC rescinded its earlier policy banning PLCs. By underscoring the acceptability of PLCs, these developments also enhanced their popularity. As a result, PLC programming registered impressive growth in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The infomercial industry, which barely existed in the early 1980’s, became an industry that generated billions of dollars in sales.

Broadcast regulation in the United States is dynamic and complex, and the FCC is only one of several organizations involved in such regulation. Other key participants include industry groups such as the National Association of Broadcasters National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), various citizens’ groups, the courts, Congress, and the White House. It is important to understand how the FCC is influenced by each of these participants. The NAB commanded substantial lobbying power until the mid-1960’s, and other organizations, such as the Association of Maximum Service Telecasters, Clear Channel Broadcasting Service, and the Daytime Broadcasters Association emerged as specialist lobbying groups. The broadcast industry influenced FCC policies through successful congressional lobbying efforts. This industry’s substantial political clout in Congress stems from its control over electronic media exposure, an important resource for politicians.

Citizens’ groups also have influenced FCC activities. In 1966, a landmark decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recognized the right of responsible civic groups to object to license renewal applications that were under FCC consideration. In the case Community of the United Church of Christ v. FCC, Community of the United Church of Christ v. FCC (1966) the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ was allowed to challenge the license renewal of WLBT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi, because this broadcaster discriminated against African American audiences. Groups such as the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting and Action for Children’s Television sought to influence the FCC on policy matters relating to the content of broadcast material. During the 1960’s, several citizens’ groups settled differences with specific broadcasters through petitions to the FCC that requested denial of license renewal for these broadcasters. In the 1970’s, the first African American commissioner was appointed to the FCC at the urging of such groups, which also actively participated in congressional hearings to urge funding support for consumer group activities.

The continual threat of judicial review tended to have an impact on policies of the FCC even when these policies were not formally adjudicated. The Communications Act stipulated that appeals concerning FCC decisions on broadcasting licensing should be filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and that the decisions of that court are final, except for review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Congress also exercised substantial control over federal administrative agencies such as the FCC, and the FCC was often targeted for special congressional investigations. Investigations supervised by Congressman Oren Harris, Democrat from Arkansas, in the early 1960’s provided insights into “payola” problems prevalent in the recording and broadcast industries and led to revisions in the Communications Act.

Several powerful standing committees in Congress continuously reviewed FCC performance and the adequacy of the broadcasting regulatory framework. These committees held general oversight hearings and other hearings designed to evaluate any relevant legislation. A 1981 decision by Congress to change the FCC’s status from a permanently authorized agency to one requiring congressional reauthorization every two years underscored the power of the standing committees, which ultimately had the authority to approve such reauthorization. Finally, Congress and the White House both influenced the FCC through the nomination and confirmation process for commissioners. The White House Office of Management and Budget exercised authority through reviewing and revising the annual FCC budget.

In 1976, Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin, a Democrat from California, proposed a major revision to the Communications Act. The motivation for the proposal was that the law had become antiquated: New technologies such as cable television had transformed broadcasting. In 1978, Van Deerlin introduced a bill that proposed abolition of the FCC and replacement with a Communications Regulatory Commission. This proposal was abandoned in 1979, but in retrospect, the proposal was beneficial to the FCC because it pushed the agency toward major deregulation decisions on the radio and cable television industries. Federal Communications Commission Communictions Act (1934)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Head, Sydney W., et al. Broadcasting in America: A Survey of Electronic Media. 9th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. The standard introduction to the institutions of radio and television in the United States. Begins with an analysis of the invention of wireless radio broadcasting.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krasnow, Erwin G., Lawrence D. Longley, and Herbert A. Terry. The Politics of Broadcast Regulation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Authoritative account of the laws and policies that govern broadcasting in the United States. Traces the history of both the FRC and the FCC and offers insights into the political factors that shaped their creation and growth. Offers forceful, thought-provoking, and well-researched arguments and perspectives. Presents five case studies on diverse topics, including ultrahigh frequency television, commercials, and congressional efforts to rewrite the Communications Act during the 1970’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lichty, Lawrence. “The Impact of FRC and FCC Commissioners’ Backgrounds on the Regulation of Broadcasting.” Journal of Broadcasting 6 (Spring, 1962): 97-110. Suggests that factors such as the education, occupational history, and personal experience of commissioners affect policies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Glen O. “The Federal Communications Commission: An Essay on Regulatory Watchdogs.” Virginia Law Review 64 (March, 1978): 169-262. A former FCC commissioner offers some rare and useful perspectives on the FCC.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sterling, Christopher H., and John Michael Kittross. Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting. 3d ed. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001. The standard one-volume history of radio and television in the United States. A good place to begin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Federal Communications Commission: Hearings Before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, House of Representatives, Seventy-third Congress, Second Session on H.R. 8301, a Bill to Provide for the Regulation of Interstate and Foreign Communication by Wire or Radio, and for Other Purposes. 73d Congress, 2d session, 1934. Contains verbatim transcripts of hearings on the Communications Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Wenmouth, Jr. “Impact of Commissioner Background on FCC Decisions: 1962-1975.” Journal of Broadcasting 20 (Spring, 1976): 244-256. Extends Lichty’s work on how the backgrounds of FCC commissioners have influenced FCC policy.

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