Under the Communications Act of 1934, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for the "fair, efficient, and equitable distribution" of television broadcast airwaves for use by the American public. As a result, all persons or other entities (other than the Federal government) wishing to operate a television broadcast facility must apply for and receive a government-issued license in order to reserve a transmission frequency for its television signal. These broadcast licenses are subject to review and renewal by the FCC every five years unless the FCC determines a shorter period to be in the public interest.

In the United States, private individuals and companies are permitted to own and operate television stations for commercial and non-commercial use. The airwaves themselves, however, because of their limited availability on the broadcast spectrum, are considered a finite public resource that is "owned" and regulated by the Federal government on behalf of the American people. During the first half of the 1920s, when commercial broadcasting was in its infancy, pioneers in the industry had unfettered and virtually unlimited access to what was then an abundance of electromagnetic frequencies. By 1926, when the number of broadcast stations increased from 536 to 732, Congress became concerned that the rapid proliferation of broadcasters would quickly deplete available airwaves. In addition, advances in transmission technology enabled powerful, city-based operators to boost their signal range, effectively drowning out smaller, rural facilities. The chaos and cacophony of mid-1920s' broadcasting ultimately led Congress to pass regulatory legislation in 1927, and again in 1934, that requires all station owners to apply for a broadcast license, and meet specific criteria for eligibility before a license is issued or renewed.

Over the last sixty years, the essential aspects of broadcast license grants have largely stayed the same. In the increasingly rare instance in which a potential broadcaster seeks to establish a new station on an available frequency, the first step is to obtain a permit for the construction of a transmission facility. In transfer cases, or those in which a transmission facility already exists, the process begins with a filing of papers at the FCC, public notice of the filing, and the initiation of a reasonable period during which other parties in Interest may petition the FCC to deny the application. In recent years, the FCC has become much more far-reaching in considering and deciding license applications, the result of increasing competition among would-be broadcasters for fewer available channels and changing standards in what is understood by Americans to be in the "public interest."

In determining who will or will not get a broadcast license, the FCC considers a wide range of factors which can vary or be waived under different circumstances. A successful applicant must be an American citizen or an entity controlled by American citizens, must be in good financial health, and cannot own more than twelve television stations or broadcast to more than 25% of the total national audience. Cross-ownership regulations prevent owners of daily newspapers or multiple broadcast facilities within a single local market from acquiring a license to operate a television station in the same market. In an effort to promote broadcast diversity, the FCC also considers race and gender to be preferential factors in deciding who will or will not be granted the privilege of owning a television station. The FCC's diversity preferences and ownership rules, however, have become the subject of increasing controversy in the United States Congress, which, by the mid-1990s, had made broadcast deregulation a top priority on its legislative agenda.

-Michael Epstein



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Cox, Kenneth A. Broadcasting in America and the FCC's License Renewal Process: An Oklahoma Case Study. Washington, Federal Communications Commission, 1968.

"Forty Megahertz and a Mule: Ensuring Minority Ownership of the Electromagnetic Spectrum." Harvard Law Review (Boston, Massachusetts), March 1995.

Ginsburg, Douglas H., Michael H. Botein, and Mark K. Director. Regulation of the Electronic Mass Media: Law and Policy for Radio, Television, Cable, and the New Technologies. St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publications, 1979, 2nd 1991.

Lippman, John. "Preferences Get Static in Broadcasting (Making It Easier for Women, Minorities to Get Into Broadcasting." Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California), 22 February 1992.

Wharton, Dennis. "Controversial 'Diversity' Policy Upheld in Suprise Supreme Court Decision." Variety (Los Angeles, California), 4 July 1990.

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See also Allocation; Deregulation; Federal Communications Commission; "Freeze" of 1948