The Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) methods of allocating broadcasting frequencies in the United States have long been a subject of debate and controversy. The key issues have been: first, whether television should be controlled by the few strongest networks; second, whether the FCC is responsible for setting aside frequencies for non-commercial or educational broadcasters, even though the media operate within a privately held system; and third, whether spectrum allocations should change when new technologies, requiring use of the airwaves, are introduced. The Communication Act of 1934 provides for a way to maintain federal control over all channels of interstate and foreign radio transmission, and to provide for the use of such channels, but not their ownership.

The Act outlines a four-step process for allocating frequencies. An entity that applies for a construction permit (the right to build a broadcast station) must seek a specific channel, antenna location, coverage area, times of operation and power level of preference. If that applicant is selected for an allocation, the FCC then issues the construction permit. When the station is built, the owners must prove their transmitter and antenna can perform to FCC standards. The aspirant can then apply for a station license. Usually, applicants must also prove U.S. citizenship, good character free of criminal records, sufficient financial resources and proof of expert technical abilities.

When a few experimenters first put voice over wireless telegraphy at the turn of the century, there was no immediate need for a system of allocation. Many "broadcasters" were amateurs working with low-power systems. Even so, other uses were apparent and growth of radio use was rapid. It was interrupted, however, by World War I, when the government chose to take over all domestic frequencies to insure control of airwave communication. After the war, when the British government chose to retain political power of its broadcast frequencies and form a public broadcasting system, the U.S. government instead decided to rely upon the entrepreneurial spirit and allow private profit from broadcasting. The technology and the industry were regulated under the provisions of the Radio Act of 1912 which placed control in the U.S. Department of Commerce, then administered by Secretary Herbert Hoover.

The Second National Radio Conference, 20 March 1923, addressed problems associated with increasing the number of signals on the broadcast spectrum. The Conference recommendations included the equitable distribution of frequencies to local areas and discussed wavelengths, power, time of operation and apparatus. More importantly, the Conference suggested three concepts that have not changed with time and technology. The first recognized that broadcasting usually covers a limited area and sanctioned local community involvement in the licensing process. The second concept acknowledged the limited amount of frequency space in the electromagnetic spectrum and supported the assignment of one consistent wavelength to broadcasters. The third concept proposed that once a broadcasting organization was assigned a certain frequency, it should not have to move that placement due to new regulation.

These recommendations died in the U.S. House Committee on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries and in Senate committee. No action was taken. Commerce Secretary Hoover believed government control had no place in American broadcasting; those using the airwaves should join together and regulate themselves.

Congress reflected the conflicting views. Though litigation against the government rendered the Radio Act of 1912 virtually inoperable, 50 separate bills failed in Congress before the federal legislature passed the Radio Act of 1927. Cases such as Hoover v. Intercity Radio (1923) held that the government could not refuse a license to an interested party, but could designate a frequency and police interferences. In the next major case, United States vs. Zenith Radio Corporation (1926), a federal judge ruled the Commerce Department had no jurisdiction to regulate radio. Other rulings by the U.S. Attorney General completely nullified Department of Commerce control.

Yet more radio broadcasters wanted frequencies and with 716 radio stations on the air, national regulation was more and more necessary. With the Radio Act of 1927, the federal government decided to retain ownership of the airwaves but allow private interests to hold continuing licenses. The licenses were renewable after three years, depending on the holder's ability to serve the "public interest, convenience, and necessity."

Networks had grown substantially after 1926. Religious, educational, cultural, civil liberties and labor organizations also sought a voice amidst the privately held, commercially supported licensees. Yet the 1927 Act did not successfully regulate the system. It was replaced seven years later by the Communications Act of 1934.

The two acts had many similarities and neither altered the allocations already in place for the burgeoning broadcast networks CBS and NBC. Among existing non-profit broadcasters, many educational institutions were still forced to share frequencies and in the end most educators dropped their partial licenses and chose to be silent. Yet the lobbying efforts of Paulist Priest John B. Harney made Congress realize the airwaves could be used for social good by non-profit interests and the 1934 Act included a provision to study such allocations. Still, the conflict was not resolved until 1945 when 20 FM channels between 88 and 92 MHz were reserved for non-commercial and educational broadcasting. These frequencies represented 20 percent of the broadcast band.

Among the commercial networks, each had considerable power over its affiliate stations until an FCC ruling limited the degree of contractual control over affiliate operations. But practical authority over the dependent affiliates persisted since networks supplied most programming.

By 1938 NBC and CBS commanded the great majority of licensed wattage through owned stations or affiliates. In 1941 the FCC's Report on Chain Broadcasting was accepted by the Supreme Court in NBC v. U.S.(1943). The ruling led to a separation of NBC into two radio networks, one of which was later sold and became ABC. Four way network competition began in the radio marketplace among Mutual, the fledgling ABC, and the dominators, CBS and NBC.

As of 1941, six television stations had been approved and two were in operation; CBS and RCA stepped in early to receive construction permits and licenses. The major networks were joined by receiver maker Alan B. DuMont and each ventured into television as network programmers in the 1940s. The three networks divided the week, each programming two or three nights without competition.

The FCC settled the placement of the radio bandwidth in 1945, but allocation problems did not end. Television's impending maturity created more spectrum confusion. As it had done with radio, the government had issued experimental and early frequency allocations for television on the VHF and UHF spectrums. Large broadcasting corporations obtained early signal assignments both to monopolize the new medium and to sell a new product, television receivers.

The problem with television allocations was the limited amount of bandwidth compared to radio signal space. The FCC had planned eighteen channels, each six megacycles wide between 50 and 294 megacycles. In the VHF spectrum space, only 13 channels existed which could support television signals. Cities 150 miles apart could share a channel; towns 75 miles apart could have consecutively placed station signals. When the Commission considered rules in September of 1945, it was decided that 140 metropolitan districts would be allocated VHF broadcasting channels.

The Television Broadcast Association supported shorter distances between localities using the same spectrum space for signal transmission. ABC and CBS believed the future of television existed in the more generous UHF spectrum space. Several network leaders argued either to transfer all television delivery to the more capacious UHF or to allow existing stations to slowly move to UHF. Instead, the FCC approved a VHF delivery plan in November 1945. 500 stations would be allocated to the 140 communities, with no allocations planned for channel 1. The FCC plan did not move any previously granted station frequencies. It did, however, allow shorter distances between eastern U.S. station assignments. New York City was given seven channels; smaller towns were allocated limited coverage and lower powered television signals.

By 1948, the FCC realized the November 1945 plan would not work and advocated moving all television to UHF. By then fifteen stations were on the air. While a final plan could be developed, the FCC added some VHF signal restrictions and completely eliminated use of channel one. Also that year, the FCC again held further allocation hearings. The resulting ruling increased the number stations but questioned the use of UHF for television delivery. The new plan now placed 900 stations in more than 500 communities, still utilizing only the VHF band. Confusion, conflict, and controversy continued and on September 29, 1948 the FCC halted further allocation of station licenses. Only 108 stations were on the air. This action became known as The Freeze of 1948.

Construction of the stations previously approved, but not built, continued and more VHF stations did begin broadcasting between 1948 and the end of the freeze in April 1952. Many television industry interests still supported UHF utilization, but manufacturers had not yet developed transmission equipment for UHF. Television sets were not being built to receive the higher signals. Potential problems with UHF included signal strength and interference. Nevertheless, the FCC decided to begin UHF television without additional testing.


With regard to station allocations, the FCC's Sixth Report and Order was a most salient document. There the Commission decided to maintain placement of the existing VHF stations, though a few were ordered to change bandwidth within the VHF spectrum. The new plan created 2,053 allotments in 1,291 communities.

The FCC aggressively assigned UHF stations to smaller towns and left VHF for large cities. The number of stations per community depended upon population. For example, a community with 250,000 to one million people received four to six stations. Except for Los Angeles and New York which secured seven stations in the VHF spectrum, the FCC allocated no more than four VHF stations per locality. Spacing of the same channel between communities depended on such factors as geographical location, population density, and tropospheric interference. Cities at least 170 miles apart could have received allotment of the same channel.

The FCC made a historically significant ruling when it chose to enter UHF broadcasting without materially altering existing allocations. Since many sets had no UHF equipment, the stations with VHF station assignments had the upper hand over new UHF stations. It would be years before any large population could receive UHF. More importantly, the decision created a situation of the early bird catching the worm. The companies with the first granted allocations, namely NBC and CBS, also had the best signal positions. The FCC chose to maintain network dominance of television and essentially gave the large networks control over the future of the new medium. For most viewers, it was easier to tune to the broadcasting giants than to new networks or independent stations.

Allocation of non-commercial stations was another important provision of the Sixth Report and Order. FCC Commissioner Frieda Hennock, a New York attorney, argued for spectrum space for educational television. She established her place in broadcasting history when the FCC decided to make 252 non-commercial assignments, including 68 VHF and 174 UHF stations. This was one tenth of all stations assigned. Any community with one or two VHF stations in operation won a VHF educational television frequency. The first non-commercial station reached the airwaves in 1954.

Television station allocations moved slowly until the middle 1970s. ABC, operating largely on UHF stations, jockeyed for positioning against the stronger networks, CBS and NBC. In 1975, in a period of government deregulation, the FCC liberalized both frequency allocations and methods of television delivery. The large fees required for satellite receiving stations had diminished, enhancing the possibilities for both satellite and cable delivery of television to homes and businesses.

The FCC again began an aggressive period of television station allocations between 1975 and 1988, primarily assigning UHF spectrum licenses. During this period, more than 300 stations began telecasting. In 1975, 513 VHF and 198 UHF stations were on the air. By 1988, 543 VHF and 501 UHF stations broadcasted shows. The advent of cable somewhat leveled the competitive lead of lower-numbered VHF stations; the reception of each station was equal when provided through the wire and many homes now subscribed to cable systems. The added popularity of remote controlled, hundred-plus channel, cable-ready receivers made any signal a finger-press away.

Deregulation also created still more television signal competition, all governed through FCC allocations. Low power television, or short range signals serving communities within cities and smaller towns in rural areas, grew as additional licenses were granted in the 1980s. Though these stations were originally expected to handle either home shopping or community access programs, many low power stations became competitive with other television stations by becoming cable carriers.

Because the major networks already held affiliate contracts in most markets, these new UHF and LPTV stations were largely independently owned. The existence of more and more unaffiliated stations opened a door for the creation of new television networks and new program providers. In 1985, the FOX Broadcasting Network was created as a fourth network by linking a number of the new, largely independent stations. Specialty networks, such as the Spanish-language Univision and Telemundo networks, and broadcast-cable hybrid networks such as Home Shopping Network and Trinity Broadcast Network (religious) developed in the late 1980s. In 1994, Paramount and Warner Bros. Studios entered the arena with networks of broadcast stations airing new programming. The shows presented on these alternative networks have most often been outside the scope of the large networks. Some have challenged traditional network notions of "taste" or programming standards and have presented new types of shows. Others have focused on a selected audience such as Spanish-speakers or home shoppers.

In 1994, FOX Broadcasting Company became concerned with the signal power, and resulting audience reach, of its affiliates. The network made a series of contract changes, in essence trading several of its UHF outlets for stronger VHF stations. In those deals, many independent broadcasters were pushed aside for stations owned by broadcast groups such as New World Entertainment. The end result was an increase in VHF placements for FOX shows without resort to issues or problems related to allocation.

The future of station allocation is unclear. In the early 1990s, when High Definition Television (HDTV) was expected to overtake U.S. television, skeptics pointed to the history of U.S. television allocations. HDTV could have required more extensive bandwidth, and therefore, the reordering of spectrum allocations. But in the past, except for the shifting of some VHF stations required by the Sixth Report and Order, the FCC has not changed a previously granted allocation no matter how compelling or leveling the reason. The dominance of the major networks has always been preserved. The channel positions have never changed materially, and audiences have remained comfortable with familiar placements. It is unlikely that the FCC will dabble with allocations in the future. Yet, as viewers grow increasingly dependent on cable as their television provider, the role of station placement may decrease in importance. Future station assignments and changes will hardly affect either cable channel placement or the social routines of the television viewer.

-Joan Stuller-Giglione


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See also Educational Television; Federal Communications Commission; "Freeze" of 1948; Hennock, Frieda B.; United States, Networks; United States, Communication Act of 1934