The (Us) Federal Communications Commission : Protecting The Public Interest Essay, Research Paper
The main purpose for the existence of the Federal Communications Commission s licensing system is to protect the public interest. The licensing of television and radio stations ensures that the electromagnetic broadcast spectrum, which is a scarce resource, is properly distributed to those that can best operate the facilities while providing programming that is of interest to all. The application of a broadcast license involves many steps and it varies for FM and AM radio stations. The Mass Media Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission is responsible for regulating the television and radio stations in the United States. The Bureau issues broadcast licenses specifying the community of license, the channel and operating power of the station. The conditions of the license ensure that the broadcast will be picked up without interference. If problems arise, the Bureau investigates and resolves the problems.
The licensing of radio stations began with the Radio Act of 1927 in which the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) was established based on requests from the industry itself. This act along with the Communications act of 1934 allowed the commission to create and enforce standards for the use of the public airwaves. While the commission does not have power over the entire radio spectrum granted by International treaty to the United States, as half the available frequencies have been designated for government use, the commission does control all commercial and private requests. Because the radio spectrum is not large enough to accommodate everyone who might want to use it, an application and licensing system has been established. This standard of licensing does not use a lottery or auction to the highest bidder, but instead grants licenses based on the “best qualified to serve the public convenience, interest, or necessity.” (FCC – What it does, page 379) Such licenses are renewed every seven years based on compliance with the regulations set forth by the commission as well as the station s continuing ability to serve the public good.
The allocation of frequencies varies between FM (Frequency Modulation) and AM (Amplitude Modulation) stations. AM stations are distributed on a “demand” or “first come, first served” basis. The demand system allows market style distribution in cities that can support more frequencies because of greater population. The large population centers draw the largest number of applicants because they are able to support a large diversity of stations and programming. FM stations are distributed similarly to television in that communities are assigned certain frequencies for use today or in the future. This protects the smaller communities that might not be able to operate stations today and might be unable to receive one using the demand system which does not adequately plan for future growth. There is a table of allocations for each city that can only be changed using formal rule-making proceedings.
There are certain requirements that an applicant must meet before being considered for a license. “Section 310 of the communications act mandates that a license may not be held by a non-citizen, a foreign government, a foreign corporation, or any corporation of which any officer or director is an alien or of which more than one fifth of the capital stock is owned by non-citizens.” (FCC – What It does, page 389) Such requirements ensure that the electromagnetic is not being distributed to foreign interests that might use the frequencies in a manner that does not benefit the public interest of the citizens of this country. The applicant must be of good moral character and there can be no questions regarding the honesty of the applicant either in other business dealings or in the application itself. This provision of the application process is a rather subjective decision made by the commission, but, its main purpose is to maintain the candor and honesty of its prospective licensees. A past record of dishonesty or misrepresentation is a good sign of possible future violations and is prohibited.
The FCC requires the prospective licensee to show proof of financial capability to operate the station for 90 days without any income. The applicant must also show its ability to construct, purchase, and operate the facilities required for transmission. While this requirement sets a minimum financial obligation for the applicants that disqualifies the majority of the population, such regulations guarantee that the scarce resource will be protected from those who can not afford to operate it. While the FCC does require proof of such obligations, it does not give an advantage to those who have more of a financial backing than others. Applications that just meet the minimum obligations are not weighed any less than those that have considerably more money that the minimums. All applicants must demonstrate to the commission that they have sufficient technical knowledge to meet all of the technical requirements set forth in FCC rules. The ability to operate equipment that has been approved for the various classes of stations as well as fix technical glitches assures that interference or blatant technical violations will be minimized. The FCC has the right to not accept, which is different from rejection, those applications that do not meet the minimum technical requirements.
The FCC also has regulations that encourage and even require media diversity. Multiple ownership rules attempts to prevent a single person, entity, or organization to own more than the standard amount of broadcast stations. The FCC furthers these regulations by prohibiting multiple ownership of facilities in the same community or area, those limiting ownership no matter where the facilities are, and those forbidding newspapers from owning a television station in the same community. No single entity can own two AM stations, FM stations, or two television stations in the same community unless their programming is non-commercial. Limits on the number of stations owned throughout the country also apply, with a cap of 12 to 14 stations total, depending on minority hiring practices. Because this was once permitted, certain stations have been “grandfathered” in to the new rules, however, such clauses do not apply if ownership is sold or transferred in the future.
The Federal Communications Commission can fine a station or take its license if it finds that a broadcaster is violating FCC rules. FCC rules generally do not govern the selection of programming that is broadcast. The main exceptions are that broadcasters may not broadcast obscene programming; they may broadcast indecent programming only when there is a strong probability that no children are in the audience; and they must limit the number of commercials aired during programming aimed at children. There are also rules to ensure that candidates for public office are able to have access to the air for their paid political ads as well as responses and equal time for qualified candidates.
Once the application has been submitted for evaluation, the FCC will grant a license if it feels that the “public convenience, interest, or necessity will be served thereby.” (FCC – What it Does, page 412) If for any reason the commission is unable to make a finding that the station will serve the public interest, there must be a full hearing with the “burden of proof placed on the applicant.” (FCC – What it Does, page 412) Other broadcast stations or citizens groups that might be affected also have the right to call licensing into question by hearing. Such groups can attempt to show that the granting of a new license will have an economically adverse effect on the already established station. The commission can take these accounts into consideration but can not protect stations from competition. In such cases where there is some question by the commission, but all the qualifications have been met, temporary 180 day or more licenses can and will be granted. Applications that do not meet the qualifications of the commission or do not win lottery or contests for applicants of equal qualification are rejected. Such rejections can be appealed.
If a license is granted, the Broadcaster does not own the frequency, but instead holds a “renewable license to use the frequencies on which the station transmits.” (page 100 handout) These licenses are renewed as long as their are no competing applicants in a “rubber stamp” process every seven years if “all the criteria for license are still met.” (page 106 handout) If there are competitors seeking the same broadcast license at renewal time, the past performance of the station is also evaluated. If in any case a license is revoked or suspended, the broadcaster has the right to an appeal or review in which the accused or rejected must prove that he or she did not violate the rules set forth in the Communications Act of 1934 or is in the public interest to be granted a license. The application process for a broadcast license is quite complex but seeks to ensure that the public interest is always being served. The rules for such applications were established with the Communications Act of 1934 and continue to remain in effect today. While certain additions and changes have been made in the process since the original writing, the foresight and prudence of the act and its application process has served the public and its interests well and will continue to serve the public commendably in the future.