When applied in the United States this general concept describes most American electronic media policy in the past two decades. Largely a bi-partisan effort, this fundamental shift in the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) approach to radio and television regulation began in the mid-1970s as a search for relatively minor "regulatory underbrush" which could be cleared away for more efficient and cost-effective administration of the important rules that would remain. Congress largely went along with this trend, and initiated a few deregulatory moves of its own. The arrival of the Reagan Administration and FCC Chairman Mark Fowler in 1981 marked a further shift to a fundamental and ideologically-driven reappraisal of regulations long held central to national broadcasting policy. Ensuing years saw removal of many long-standing rules resulting in an overall reduction in FCC oversight of station and network operations. Congress grew increasingly wary of the pace of deregulation, however, and began to slow the FCC's deregulatory pace by the late 1980s.

Specific deregulatory moves--some by Congress, others by the FCC--included (a) extending television licenses to five years from three in 1981; (b) expanding the number of television stations any single entity could own grew from seven in 1981 to 12 in 1985 (a situation under consideration for further change in 1995); (c) abolishing guidelines for minimal amounts of non-entertainment programming in 1985; (d) elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987; (e) dropping, in 1985, FCC license guidelines for how much advertising could be carried; (f) leaving technical standards increasingly in the hands of licensees rather than FCC mandates; and (g) deregulation of television's competition (especially cable which went through several regulatory changes in the decade after 1983).

Deregulatory proponents do not perceive station licensees as "public trustees" of the public airwaves required to provide a wide variety of services to many different listening groups. Instead, broadcasting has been increasingly seen as just another business operating in a commercial marketplace which did not need its management decisions questioned by government overseers. Opponents argue that deregulation violates key parts of The Communications Act of 1934--especially the requirement to operate in the public interest--and allows broadcasters to seek profits with little public service programming required in return.

American deregulation has been widely emulated in other countries in spirit if not detail. Developed and developing countries have introduced local stations to supplement national services, begun to allow (if not encourage) competing media such as cable, satellite services, and videocassettes, and have sometimes loosened regulations on traditional radio and television. Advertising support along lines of the American model has become more widely accepted, especially as television's operating costs rise. But the American example of relying more on competition than regulation also threatens traditional public service broadcasting which must meet increasing competition for viewers by offering more commercially-appealing programs, usually entertainment--rather than culture-based.

-C. H. Sterling


Broadcast Deregulation. New York: Station Representatives Association, 1979.

Congressional Research Service. Should the Federal Government Significantly Strengthen the Regulation of Mass Media Communication in the United States? 96th Cong., 1st Session, House Document 96-167 (Washington, D.C.), 1979.

Fowler, Mark S. and Daniel L. Brenner. "A Marketplace Approach to Broadcast Regulation." Texas Law Review (Austin, Texas), February 1982.

Horwitz, Robert Britt. The Irony of Regulatory Reform: The Deregulation of American Telecommunications. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Johnson, Leland L. Toward Competition in Cable Television. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994.

Krattenmaker, Thomas G., and Lucas A. Powe, Jr. Regulating Broadcast Programming. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995.

Le Duc, Don R. Beyond Broadcasting: Patterns in Policy and Law. White Plains, New York: Longman, 1987.

Powe, Lucas A. Jr. American Broadcasting and the First Amendment. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1987.

Tunstall, Jeremy. Communications Deregulation: The Unleashing of America's Communications Industry. Oxford, U.K.: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Weiss, Leonard W, and Michael W. Klass, editors. Regulatory Reform: What Actually Happened. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986.


See also Federal Communications Commission; License; United States, Cable