Constructing Television Communities: The FCC, Signals, and Cities, 1948-1957

Article excerpt

As the new medium of television emerged in the United States between the late 1940s and late 1950s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made decisions that would affect the industry and its audiences for decades to come. This study explores the FCC's attempts to define the local television "community" as it established the structure of U.S. commercial television. (1) In doing so, this research extends two strands of electronic media scholarship.

The first is historical research on the crucial period in which the FCC introduced a national system of television. Studies of this process often emphasize the emergence of a system that, because of the handful of very-high-frequency (VHF) channels assigned to most communities, ensured the survival of just three television networks until the mid-1980s (Brinson, 2000, 2002; Kittross, 1979; Noll, Peck, & McGowan, 1973; Sterling & Kittross, 2002). Historians of this period have also examined FCC Commissioner Frieda Hennock's successful campaign to reserve television channels for educational broadcasters (Barnouw, 1968; Brinson, 2002).

The second strand of research addresses localism, the public interest, and electronic media. Stavitsky (1994) examined U.S. public radio's shift from service dedicated to local, spatially defined communities to service for communities defined by affinities and tastes that cross traditional geographic boundaries. Turow (1997) and Sunstein (2001) warned that new marketing strategies and media technologies are fracturing society into market segments and ideological factions that have little concern for citizens outside their own groups. Napoli (2000) argued that U.S. media policy must acknowledge social configurations that emerge through new technologies, but he also provided evidence that geographic notions of community remain necessary in a democracy where many aspects of life are still governed at the local level. Napoli also demonstrated that, since the 1920s, FCC broadcast policy has been hamstrung by a vague notion of geographic localism. This traditional standard of localism fails to distinguish between programs originated in a local community and those of interest to a local community (Napoli, 2001).

Both these threads of scholarship lack historical research on the dimensions of local, geographic communities served by electronic media. This study of early television history examines how the FCC conceptualized the local community to be served by what would become the most influential, pervasive electronic medium of the 20th century. Based on primary sources that include FCC licensing decisions, FCC policy statements and reports, transcripts of Congressional hearings, and contemporary press accounts, this study demonstrates that the decisions made by the FCC of the late 1940s and early 1950s were fitful, ineffective attempts to link television service to communities already defined as cultural, economic, or political units. The television service area instead became an amorphous aggregate of consumers. Less than 10 years after the FCC issued the Sixth Report and Order of 1952, its blueprint for national television, the 1,291 television communities it envisioned had coalesced into about 275 local television markets (Advertising Opportunities, 1961, p. 134). Even in the early 21st century, the market remains the basic unit of local, broadcast television.

Aufderheide (1999) argued that the cultivation of publics should be central to the design of new communication technologies: "As we map ourselves onto various electronic grids, those grids themselves become places where we define ourselves--as consumers, as citizens, and also as members of the public" (p. 7). Aufderheide was writing about the Telecommunications Act of 1996, but her concerns apply to the FCC's early attempts to define local television audiences as publics. The FCC's experience between 1948 and 1957 is a complex story of administrative confusion, unpredictable new technology, relentless economic pressure, and--perhaps--behind-the-scenes political influence. …