Justifying the federal regulation of broadcast media

posted by Jeff | Monday, November 14, 2011, 11:49 AM | comments: 0

There is an effort underway to get the Supreme Court to extend full First Amendment protection to broadcast media. The argument goes that changes in technology and media make the regulation obsolete.

For a bit of background not included in the article, keep in mind that broadcast regulation has always been justified in part because of the scarcity of spectrum. You can only have so many broadcast licenses in a particular area because of interference and what not, and "air" is considered a public resource. The theory goes, then, that the regulation of this medium is justified because it's so rare. Back in the day, there were no alternatives to this mass-media beyond print, which by comparison is slow and not immediate.

Because of the public and scarce nature, it was reasoned that broadcasters should serve the public trust, and therefore adhere to community standards. This completely makes logical sense to me, even though I'm frankly in the camp that regulation starts at home with you deciding what your kids watch.

Here's the thing though. Congress already went down the road of deregulation, even before the Internet really took hold. They lifted ownership limits, and before too long, Clear Channel owned a ridiculous percentage of all radio stations. They stopped serving the public trust when they started programming these stations out of some office in New York, completely out of touch with local tastes.

So why should there be any continued regulation at all beyond adherence to technical transmission standards? You can listen to your iPod or XM or whatever for radio, and some huge percentage of Americans watch TV via cable, satellite or the Internet. As broadcast stations are no longer the dominant source of media, all of the justification for regulating them as such pretty much goes away. Again, I feel very strongly that the ship sailed when the ownership limits went away.


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