Broadcasting Deregulation

December 4, 1987

Report Outline
Special Focus


The Reagan administration's campaign to deregulate most aspects of the broadcasting industry is running into increasing resistance. As is the case with other deregulated industries, such as transportation, telephones and banking, there are growing questions about whether the lifting of federal controls from broadcasting has served the best interests of the public. Those who advocate a return to a more active government role in controlling what goes out over the airwaves base their position in part on the ability of radio and television to influence the values and behavior of millions of people.

The new doubts about deregulation come as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is completing the dismantlement of a system that for more than half a century oversaw virtually every aspect of the broadcasting industry, from technical and economic questions to programming content. The Reagan administration's deregulation drive was led by communications lawyer Mark S. Fowler, who served as FCC chairman from May 1981 until April 1987. Arguing that television was merely a “toaster with pictures,” Fowler sought to make the broadcasting industry as free from government control as the appliance industry—and the print media. In the space of a few years, the commission abolished limits on what stations could show, such as the number of commercials, as well as requirements on what they had to broadcast, such as news coverage. In addition, relatively liberal FCC policies allowed a substantial increase in the amount of sexually oriented material being broadcast.

The reaction against broadcasting deregulation has come in a variety of forms. In Congress, the debate has focused on the so-called “fairness doctrine,” the long-standing rule that required broadcasters to present opposing points of view on important public issues. The FCC abolished the doctrine last August. Key leaders in both the Senate and House are pushing to write the fairness requirement into law. Congress also is considering a bill, sponsored by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, aimed at pressuring television broadcasters to adopt voluntary restrictions on the amount of violence they show. Two federal court decisions in recent months have forced the FCC to take another look at its decision to remove limits on the amount of advertising that can be shown on children's programs.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Aug. 02, 2019  The 5G Revolution
Oct. 12, 2012  Social Media and Politics
Mar. 16, 2001  Cell Phone Safety
Apr. 23, 1999  The Future of Telecommunications
Dec. 04, 1987  Broadcasting Deregulation
Dec. 16, 1983  Breaking Up AT&T
Feb. 04, 1983  Telecommunications in the Eighties
Sep. 27, 1961  Space Communications
Feb. 16, 1949  Telephone Monopoly
Mar. 23, 1944  Freedom of Communications
Feb. 15, 1930  Communications: Unification and Regulation
Regulation and Deregulation
Regulation and Legal Issues