In Washington DC this week, many in the communications world are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Five years ago, we noted the changes that the Act made in the broadcast regulatory world – changes that are still being debated 20 years later. To show how little things change, I thought that I would republish the article that I wrote 5 years ago. There, I talked about some of the changes made in 1996 in the broadcast ownership rules that were still being debated in 2011, and suggested that they might be resolved by the review of the multiple ownership rules that was then about to begin. Of course, that didn’t happen (see our article here about the FCC’s decision to push most of the ownership decisions into the current Quadrennial Review of those rules. So we can again make the same claim – that perhaps some of these issues will be resolved by the current ownership rule review that is supposed to be decided this summer (though that date may well slip – see our predictions for the FCC’s actions on broadcast issues for this year, here).
Our article from 5 years ago also talked about calls then being made by one FCC Commissioner to roll back some of the 1996 reforms lengthening the license term for broadcasters. Those calls seem to have gone unheard so perhaps that one issue may have been resolved – at least for the time being. It also discussed the proposals for the repurposing of the TV spectrum for wireless uses, which has led to the Incentive Auction that the FCC is about to conduct.
But other issues remain on the table. So here is a look back at what I wrote 5 years ago on the 15th anniversary of the Act:
On February 8, 1996, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. While the Act had significant impact throughout the communications industry, the impact on broadcasters was profound, and is still being debated. The Act made changes for broadcasters in several major areas:
- Lengthened license renewals to 8 years for both radio and TV, and eliminated the “comparative renewal”
- For radio, eliminated all national caps on the number of radio stations in which one party could have an attributable interest and increased to 8 stations the number one party could own in the largest radio markets
- For television, raised national ownership caps to having stations that reached no more than 35% of the national audience, with no limits on the number of stations that could be owned as long as their reach was under that cap.
- Allocated spectrum that resulted in the DTV transition
Obviously, the DTV spectrum began the profound changes in the way television is broadcast, and led to the current debate as to whether over-the-air television should be further cut back in order to promote wireless broadband (see our recent post on the FCC’s current proceeding on this issue). While the other changes have now been in effect for 15 years, the debate over these provisions continue. Some argue that the renewal and ownership modifications have created too much consolidation in the broadcast media and lessened the broadcaster’s commitment to serving the public interest. Others argue that, in the current media world, these changes don’t go far enough. Broadcasters are under attack from many directions, as new competitors fight for local audiences (often with minimally regulated multi-channel platforms, such as those delivered over the Internet) and others attack broadcasters principal financial support – their advertising revenue. Even local advertising dollars, traditionally fought over by broadcasters and newspapers (with some competition from billboards, direct mail and local cable), is now under assault from services such as Groupon and Living Social, and from other new media competitors of all sorts. With the debated continuing on these issues in the current day, it might be worth a few looking back at the 1996 changes for broadcasters, and their impact on the current broadcast policy debate.