Regulating Television

Michael O'Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History, George Mason University


Television was invented in the late 1920s, but didn't become popular until the 1950s. In 1949, about one million sets were in use: by the end of the 1950s, Americans owned more than 50 million TVs. As television began reaching into nearly very living room in America, it brought questions about its content -- should it be regulated, and how?

Who Regulates Television Content?

There were—and still are— many similarities between television and radio. Both are (or were, before cable) "broadcast" over the airwaves, and both are regulated by the federal government. Legal scholar Marc Sophos describes the argument for regulation:

Broadcast channels are "scarce" (that is, there are not enough available channels for all of those who wish to broadcast), and the electromagnetic spectrum has been deemed, since the beginning of broadcast regulation, to be a publicly owned natural resource. This "scarce public resource" rationale formed the foundation on which broadcast regulation was based.

Like radio broadcasters, television broadcasters operated under the authority of the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC was established by Franklin Roosevelt with the assumption that the airwaves, the broadcast "bandwidth," belonged to the people, much in the same way as, for example, federal forest land belongs to the people. Broadcasters applied for a license to use a section of that public property, a specific frequency. In return, broadcasters had:

an obligation to serve the interest of the community. This obligation requires the licensee to 'ascertain the needs of the community' and then provide program service to foster public understanding of those issues. How the licensee provides programming to serve the needs [was] left to the licensee's discretion. (source)

The FCC had the right to restrict content -- to censor obscene material, to require balanceand "fairness" in political programming, and to insist that a certain percentage of each broadcast week be devoted to what it termed "public use." The preceding link gives more information on the FCC and its political requirements. The fairness doctrine was eventually dropped in the 1980s.

In the 1950s, as today, the FCC also prohibited "obscene and indecent" material. Programming is considered obscene if "the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the material appeals to the prurient interest; that the material describes or depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive manner; or taken as whole, the material lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." Indecent programming was defined as "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium and describes sexual or excretory activities and organs." Obscene programming was prohibited at all times in the 1950s, but "indecent" programming was allowed at certain times, typically after hours when children went to bed. The meaning of "indecent" has tended to change over time. In the 1950s, for example, TV programmers would not show a married couple sharing a bed. Married couples, in 1950s TV-land, slept in separate beds. The subject of indecent programming is still unsettled, as any listener of drive-time commercial radio knows.

In the 1950s the FCC, whose board is appointed by the President, also considered setting aside certain parts of the broadcast spectrum for children's non-profit, educational programming. FCC board members were increasingly concerned about the violence on television, and the lack of educational children's programming. When the FCC in 1952 added UHF (ultra high frequency) channels to the existing channels then in operation, they reserved 10 percent for use by nonprofit educational organizations.

In testimony to a 1955 Congressional subcommittee, Freida B. Hennock, the first female FCC commissioner, advocated oversight of commercial television by governmental and civic bodies—including women’s organizations—and championed educational television.

William Wood, general manager of a new Pittsburgh educational station, strengthened her point when he emphasized the lack of violence in his station’s programming and included excerpts from fan mail praising an acclaimed children’s show.

Can TV Regulate Itself?

FCC regulations addressed questions of obscenity and to some extent, political balance, but they paid little attention to other aspects of television content. How should the FCC approach depictions of violence, criminality, drug and alcohol use, and other forms of immorality? Congress held its first hearing on the subject in 1952, they chose not to take any action to interfere with the industry, in part because that year the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters adopted their own code to regulate broadcast content. The NARTB followed the model of Hollywood, which had always, when presented with calls for censorship, acted to censor itself with production codes and decency standards. No specific law said that married couples could not share a bed on TV: rather, the television industry voluntarily imposed that limit on itself.

Still the Senate, led by Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, held hearings in 1954 and 1955 on the possible influence of television on juvenile delinquency. The resulting report demonstrated how the industry's Television Code regarded the portrayal of crime, horror, sex, and law enforcement, and to the industry’s responsibility to provide “wholesome entertainment” for children. The report also presented testimony from a television executive who cited the motion picture industry’s history of successful self-regulation to ward off government censorship. The Senate report—excerpts of which are included below—also presented the preamble to the Code and detailed the Code’s review mechanism.

You can now see some of the range of concerns television raised. Should it be entirely for profit, or should it serve "the public good?" How would "public good" be defined? Should the government act to restrict content, and is so, how? Consider these questions as you move on to the next part of the assignment.

Updated | April 2004