Mass communications law is a body of primarily federal statutes, regulations, and judicial decisions that govern radio, broadcast, cable, and satellite television and other means of electronic communication.
The Government in the United States first implemented mass communications law in 1910, with the growing popularity of the radio. This was during a time when radio was regarded primarily as a device to bring about safe maritime operations and as a potential advancement in military technology. People seeking to use radio frequencies were required to register with the commerce department to have a frequency assigned to them.
During World War One, entrepreneurs began to recognize the commercial possibilities of radio and by the mid-1920s, commercial radio stations were in operation. At this time, the Secretary of Commerce set aside frequencies for commercial application. Government regulation was seen as necessary in order to create a coherent plan for radio and television broadcasting and to ensure these facilities are used responsibly.
The regulatory powers of the Secretary were uncertain because they were authorized under law only to record applications and to grant frequencies. This led to the creation of the Federal Radio Commission in 1927, which was established to assign applicants designated frequencies under specific engineering rules. It also created and enforced standards for the broadcasters' privilege of using the public's airwaves.
The FRC later became the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which was established by the Communications Act of 1934. This act set out a regulatory structure which would govern mass communications law for more than 60 years, with the FCC as the governing regulatory body. The law made clear that federal government had sole jurisdiction over modern mass communication.
The FCC was given the power to establish the requirements for the licensing of stations and set-up a framework to ensure some competition for licenses. It allowed the free market to determine such matters as advertising costs, expenses, cost of equipment and choice of programming by broadcasters. In addition to regulating commercial and educational broadcasting, the FCC had and still has pervasive power to govern non-broadcast use of communications facilities, such as interstate commerce carrier systems, radio systems for truck-to-truck communication, taxicab networks, marine and ship radio, aviation frequencies, citizens band radio, police and fire communications networks and cable and satellite television.
Since the 1970s, the FCC has required cable television stations to dedicate some of their channels to local broadcasting stations. Congress ruled under the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, that cable systems with 12 or fewer channels must carry at least three local broadcast signals. It also stated that larger systems must carry all local signals up to a maximum of one-third of the system's total number of channels.
Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, new licenses and renewals are granted for eight years. The FCC classified different types of stations and the particular services they provide and assigned the band of frequencies for each individual station. Mass communication law in the United States also states a license may be denied for violations of criminal law but disqualification does not automatically occur for minor offenses.
An applicant is also required to demonstrate they have the financial capability to construct and operate the proposed facility for one year. However, under mass communication law, an applicant who wants to buy an existing profit-making station need only show the financial ability to maintain operations without revenues for the first three months. Radio and television broadcasts may be regulated for content, unlike print media.
The U.S. Supreme Court upholds regulations banning obscene material. This occurs because the First Amendment does not protect against obscenity. The Supreme Court also permitted the FCC to prohibit material that is "patently offensive," and either "sexual" or "excretory," from being broadcast during times when children are presumed to be in the audience. With the advent of new technology such as satellite, direct broadcast television, broadband Internet access and wireless technology, the FCC continues to revise mass communication law.
Although, cable and DSL have been limited to larger geographic areas in 2002 the FCC relaxed its regulations relating to the frequencies used by wireless technologies. In the same year, commercial stations were expected to convert to operating digitally. Public stations had until May 2003 to convert their frequency and faced losing their digital and their analog licenses if they failed to do so.