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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Communications Commission; "Freeze"
of 1948; Hennock,
Frieda B.; United
States, Networks; United
States, Communication Act of 1934