contained in United States public utility law, the "public interest,
convenience and necessity" provision was incorporated into the Radio
Act of 1927 to become the operational standard for broadcast licensees.
This Act contained a regulatory framework which ensured broadcasters
operated within their assigned frequencies, and at the appropriate
time periods. It not only specified technical, but programming and
licensing requirements as well. The Communications Act of 1934 expanded
upon the Radio Act of 1927 to include the telephone and telegraph
industries, and has been amended to accommodate subsequent telecommunications
technologies, such as television and cable.
The obligation to serve the public interest is integral to the "trusteeship"
model of broadcasting--the philosophical foundation upon which broadcasters
are expected to operate. The trusteeship paradigm is used to justify
government regulation of broadcasting. It maintains that the electromagnetic
spectrum is a limited resource belonging to the public, and only
those most capable of serving the public interest are entrusted
with a broadcast license. The Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) is the government body responsible for determining whether
or not applicants for broadcast license meet the requirements to
obtain them and for further regulation of those to whom licenses
have been granted.
Interpretation of the "public interest, convenience and necessity"
clause has been a continuing source of controversy. Initially, the
Federal Radio Commission implemented a set of tests, criteria which
would loosely define whether or not the broadcasting entity was
fulfilling its obligation to the listening public. Secifications
included program diversity, quality reception, and "character" evaluation
of licensees. These initial demands set a precedent for future explications
of the public interest.
pre-television "Blue Book", as it was popularly known, was developed
by the FCC in 1946 to evaluate the discrepancy between the programming
"promise" and "performance" of radio broadcasters. Since license
renewal was dependent upon serving the public interest, program
content became a significant consideration in this procedure. The
"Blue Book" required licensees to promote the discussion of public
issues, serve minority interests and eliminate superfluous advertising.
Unpopular with commercial broadcasters, the "Blue Book" was rendered
obsolete after five years because of the economic threat it posed.
it's "1960 Program Policy Statement", the FCC echoed similar sentiments
pertaining to television broadcasters. In response to assorted broadcasting
scandals, the FCC issued this statement in order to "remind" broadcasters
of how to serve the public interest. Although previous tenets of
the "Blue Book" were rejected, this revised policy included the
"license ascertainment" stipulation, requiring broadcasters to determine
local programming needs through distribution and analysis of surveys.
However, adherence to such programming policies has never been strictly
The deregulatory fervor of the 1980s seriously challenged the trusteeship
model of broadcasting. Obviously, this same move toward deregulation
subsequently challenged the means by which satisfaction of the "public
interest, convenience and necessity" should be determined. The rise
of cable television undermined the "scarcity of the spectrum" argument
because of the newer system's potential for unlimited channel capacity.
The trusteeship model was replaced with the "marketplace" model
(which had always undergirded commercial broadcasting in America).
It was now argued that the contemporary, commercially supported
telecommunications environment could provide a multiplicity of voices,
eradicating the previous justification for government regulation.
Under this model the public interest would be defined by "market
forces." A broadcaster's commercial success would be indicative
of the public's satisfaction with it.
of the marketplace argument reject the trusteeship model of broadcasting.
It is no surprise that the Cable Act does not contain a "public
interest, convenience and necessity" stipulation. However, because
cable also falls under the regulatory scrutiny of the FCC, serving
the public interest is encouraged through the PEG (public, educational
and government) access requirement related to the granting of cable
the deregulatory policies implemented during the 1980s were the
relaxation of ownership and licensing rules, eradication of assorted
public service requirements and the elimination of regulated amounts
of commercial advertising in children's programming. Perhaps most
detrimental to the legal justification for the trusteeship model
of broadcasting, however, was the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine.
This action altered future interpretations of the "public interest,
convenience and necessity."
1949, the FCC established the Fairness Doctrine as a policy which
guaranteed (among other things) the presentation of both sides of
a controversial issue. This concept is rooted in the early broadcast
regulation of the Federal Radio Commission (FRC). Congress declared
it part of the Communications Act in 1959 to safeguard the public
interest and First Amendment freedoms. The Supreme Court upheld
the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine in the case of Red
Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC (1969). Although the Fairness Doctrine
was enacted to promote pluralism, eventually it produced an opposite
effect. Concerned that advertising time would be squandered by those
who invoked the Fairness Doctrine, broadcasters challenged its constitutionality
claiming that it promoted censorship instead of diversity. Declared
in violation of the First Amendment, the Fairness Doctrine was repealed,
and attempts to provide constitutional protection for the doctrine
were vetoed by President Reagan in 1987.
The obligation to serve the "public interest, convenience and necessity"
is demonstrated through myriad broadcast policies. Licensing requirements,
the equal-time and candidate access rules, the Fairness Doctrine
and the Public Broadcasting and Cable Acts are just some examples
of regulations which were implemented to safeguard the public from
the possible selfish motives of broadcasters.
has proven that interpretation of the "public interest, convenience
and necessity" is subject to prevailing political forces. The development
of new technologies continues to test the trusteeship model of broadcasting
and what the public interest epitomizes. Despite it's ambiguity,
this phrase remains the regulatory cornerstone of telecommunications
policy in the United States.
Frederick W. "The Meaning of the Public Interest, Convenience or
Necessity." Journal of Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), Summer
Sydney W., and Christopher H. Sterling. Broadcasting in America:
A Survey of Electronic Media. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton
Mifflin Company, 1956; 6th edition, 1990.
Frank J., editor. Documents of American Broadcasting. Englewood
Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969; 3rd edition, 1978.
Dean M., and Leonard E. Reid. "The Public Interest as Defined by
FCC Policy Makers." Journal of Broadcasting (Washington,
D.C.), Summer 1980.
Don R. Mass Media Law. Madison, Wisconsin: Brown & Benchmark
Publishers, 1977; 6th edition, 1993.
Communications Commission; License;
Prime Time Access Rule;