Mass Communication Law and Ethics

By Roy L. Moore | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
ELECTRONIC MASS MEDIA AND TELECOMMUNICATIONS

On February 8, 1996, the regulation of the electronic mass media and telecommunications took an unparalleled turn that is destined to change the entire regulatory scheme -- from ownership to technology. When President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law that day, he did so with an electronic pen at the Library of Congress, symbolizing the beginning of a new era. The Act signaled the end of a decades-long policy of segregating electronic technologies to shield them from competition with each other; it also signaled the dawn of a new policy that allowed them to compete and even encouraged media mergers that would not have even been considered in the past. Prior to the Act, cable companies were not permitted to intrude into the telephone business and strict limits were imposed on the ownership of broadcast stations out of fear that a few companies would dominate the market. Cable and telephone firms can now effectively nuke it out in the marketplace; although there are still a few limits on broadcast ownership, the restrictions have been considerably liberalized. To appreciate the significance of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, we must first understand how we arrived where we are today. Let us begin with a brief history of broadcasting.


THE ORIGINS OF BROADCASTING

Although much of the electronic media is privately owned, the broadcast spectrum is considered a public resource or, more specifically, a limited public resource. The technical capacity exists for an almost unlimited number of channels, as they are traditionally known. Yet the courts and the federal government -- most notably the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) -- still cling to a scarcity rationale in justifying restraints on electronic media that would never pass constitutional muster for the print media. There is no better illustration of this than the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Turner Broadcasting v. FCC ( 1997), 1 in which the Court ruled that Sections 4 and 5 of the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992

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