In the early 1980s, the FCC deregulated many of the very detailed programing rules that governed broadcasters, based on the theory that the marketplace would assure that broadcasters provided programming of interest to their local community. The FCC looked at the marketplace, and decided that broadcasters either had to program to the needs of their community, or risk the loss of their audience to competitors. Now, the FCC is proposing to bring back many of these rules with a vengeance (see our post on the FCC’s current efforts) – imposing rules even more detailed than those that were abolished over a quarter century ago. A look at this week’s news raises the question of why now – when there are more media choices than ever (and when, particularly in the radio industry, revenues with which to meet such requirements are shrinking) – the FCC cannot rely on the marketplace to assure service to the public. When marketplace forces require that broadcasters use their most important asset – their localism – to compete against all the new competition, the FCC is now looking to require that broadcasters meet their public interest obligations in a very specific, cookie cutter, government-mandated fashion. Some of the announcements made this week highlight the extent of the competition that broadcasters now face.
On the most basic level, there are simply far more stations than there ever were. According to an FCC Report published in 1980, there were 4559 commercial AM stations, 3155 commercial FM stations, and 1038 noncommercial FM stations. While the number of AM stations had not increased substantially by the end of 2007 (4776), the number of commercial FM stations has doubled to 6309, and the number of noncommercial FMs has increased even more substantially, to 2892. TV shows a similar increase in service – from 746 commercial and 267 noncommercial stations in 1980 to 1379 commercial stations and 380 noncommercial stations. In addition, thousand of LPTV stations have been created, and over 800 LPFM stations – services that didn’t even exist in 1980. Clearly, the over-the-air competition is far greater than when the FCC initiated its deregulation efforts.