U.S. POLICY: THE COMMUNICATIONS ACT OF 1934

U.S. Communications Policy Legislation

This legislative act remains the cornerstone of American television policy six decades after its initial passage. Though often updated through amendments, and itself based on the pioneering Radio Act of 1927, the 1934 legislation which created the Federal Communications Commission has endured remarkably well through an era of dramatic technical and social change.

Congress first specifically regulated broadcasting with its 1927 Radio Act which created a Federal Radio Commission designed to regulate in "the public interest, convenience, or necessity." But federal regulation of communications was shared by the Department of Commerce and the Interstate Commerce Commission. By 1934 pressure to consolidate all telecommunication regulation for both wired and wireless services prompted new legislation with a broader purpose.

President Franklin Roosevelt's message requesting new legislation was published in January 1934, the Senate held hearings on several days in March while the House held a single day of hearings in April, a conference report melding the two differing bills together appeared in early June, and the act was passed on 19 June. Given the act's subsequent longevity, it generated little controversy at the time it was considered. Few proposed substantial alteration of the commercially-based broadcast system encoded in the 1927 law. Some critics expressed concern about educational radio's survival--and though Congress mandated the new FCC to consider setting aside some frequencies for such stations, this only occurred in 1941 with approval of FM service.

Running some 45 pages in the standard government printed version as originally passed, the act is divided into several dozen numbered sections of a paragraph or more which were originally divided into six parts called titles (a seventh was added in 1984 concerning cable television). The first title provides general provisions on the FCC, the second is devoted to common carrier regulation, the third deals with broadcasting (and is of primary concern here), the fourth with administrative and procedural matters, the fifth with penal provisions and forfeitures (fines), and the sixth with miscellaneous matters.

The act has been updated through amendment many times--chiefly with creation of public television in 1967 (provisions on the operation and funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting expanded title III), and the cable act of 1984 (which created a new title VI devoted to cable regulation, sections of which were expanded in cable legislation of 1992).

Attempts to substantially update or totally replace the act have arisen in Congress several times, most notably during a series of "rewrite" bills from 1977 to 1982, and again in the mid-1990s. Such attempts are driven partly by frustration with legislation based upon analog radio and telephone technology still in force in a digital era of convergence. They are driven as well by increasing rivalries among competing industries--broadcast, cable, telephone and others. They are also driven by political ideology that argues government should no longer attempt to do all things for all people--and by economic constraints that force government to operate more efficiently. The 1934 act, despite its many amendments, is increasingly seen as an anachronism needing replacement to match today's needs.

-Christopher H. Sterling

FURTHER READING

Berry, Tyler. Communications by Wire and Radio: A Treatise On The Law. Chicago: Callaghan, 1937.

"Communications Act Of 1934: 50th Anniversary Supplement." Federal Communications Law Journal (Los Angeles), January 1985.

Federal Communications Commission. Annual Report. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1934-(issues for 1935-56 reprinted by Arno Press, New York, 1971).

McChesney, Robert W. Telecommunications, Mass Media & Democracy: The Battle for Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

McMahon, Robert S. Regulation of Broadcasting: Half A Century of Government Regulation of Broadcasting and the Need for Further Legislative Action. 85th Congress. Second Session, Subcommittee Print: Washington, D.C., 1958.

Paglin, Max D. A Legislative History of the Communications Act of 1934. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Rosen, Philip T. The Modern Stentors: Radio Broadcasters and the Federal Government, 1920-1934. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1980.

 

See also Allocation; Educational Television; Freeze of 1948; License; Ownership; Public Interest Convenience and Necessity; U.S. Policy: Telecommunication Act of 1996