Cinema and Media Studies Television Regulation
Deborah L. Jaramillo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0361


In the twenty-first century, television takes many forms both in and outside of the home. The technologies, industries, and behaviors attached to television appear to indicate a radical shift from those of the 1950s during broadcast television’s infancy, or even the 1980s when cable television upended the three-network landscape. However, enduring structures and patterns contextualize the changes represented by streaming television, Silicon Valley competitors, and on-demand viewing. Regulation is one such enduring element. Regulators assume the shapes of public, private, and domestic stakeholders; and federal agencies, industry trade associations, and parents have intervened in multiple aspects of television, including but not limited to its programming. Regulation, too, takes many forms: It can be overt, as with the 1952 Television Code, or discrete, buried in the language of a speech by a Federal Communications Commission chair. It can also expand and contract. In the 1970s, for example, government regulation intensified, but in the 1980s, deregulation was the norm. Importantly, regulation is always subject to interpretation, revision, and reversal. Government agencies and media companies do not operate outside the law; consequently, they can see their decisions struck down by the courts. The Oxford Bibliographies entry on “Media Regulation” provides a rich survey of perspective and approaches. In seeking not to replicate that work, this entry confines itself to dominant issues in television regulation, such as the power and politics of government and industry regulators, the public interest, content regulation, and the effects of deregulation on television in the 1980s and beyond. This entry also confines itself to the regulation of television in the United States.

General Overviews

The US system of broadcasting is not entirely private and not entirely public; instead, the government and private companies exist in a tense state of cooperation. As a result, government regulations have followed technological change in a contested manner. The government entered the regulation of wireless telegraphy and radio broadcasting for practical reasons: the Radio Act of 1912 attempted to ensure the safety of those at sea, and the Radio Act of 1927 created a body, the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), to allocate frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum to would-be broadcasters. To be sure, the FRC had other regulatory duties, but its control over who could use the airwaves had profound implications for diversity of programming and for the viability of noncommercial stations. The Communications Act of 1934, which slightly modified the Radio Act of 1927, remained in place until the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The 1934 Act transformed the Federal Radio Commission into the Federal Communications Commission, but Congress did not precisely define the scope of the FCC’s power to regulate broadcasting. To comprehend the specificity of television regulation in the United States and how it fits within the larger frameworks of regulation, scholars should look to overviews written inside and outside of the field of television studies or media studies. Clarke 2000 and Baldwin, et al. 2012 provide comprehensive overviews of regulation, while Horwitz 1989 does the same but with a focus on telecommunications and television, in particular. Rabin 1986 privileges historical context. Although it is tempting to consult only the most current literature, especially when technological change appears to render earlier regulations moot, texts written at key moments in the regulatory history of television offer useful analyses of how regulators were thinking and operating at the time. Noll, et al. 1973, for example, studies the FCC at a transitional period in television technology. General regulation literature explains patterns of behavior and relationships across private and public entities, and television regulation literature permits scholars to see how the industry and its regulators understood their current moment and negotiated their roles within it. Pivotal works for scholars of television include Douglas 1989, Boddy 1990, and Streeter 1996, each of which introduces readers to foundational developments in broadcast history and regulation. Holt 2018 offers a sweeping yet concise overview of US broadcast regulation that takes readers into the twenty-first century.

  • Baldwin, Robert, Martin Cave, and Martin Lodge. Understanding Regulation: Theory, Strategy, and Practice. 2d ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    As much as this book can help the television researcher complicate the dominant narrative of regulation, which positions regulators as a police force of sorts, it also provides insight into motives for the industry’s self-regulatory efforts. The authors’ discussion of self-regulation can illuminate the trade association’s navigation of the dynamics of national networks and local stations.

  • Boddy, William. Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

    Television’s infancy provides ample evidence of the complex and intimate relationships between regulators and the industry. Boddy’s account traces major turning points in TV’s emergence, including the license freeze, the conflict over VHF and UHF, and network control over station time.

  • Clarke, Michael. Regulation: The Social Control of Business between Law and Politics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780333982327

    Although Clarke’s book is not about television regulation specifically, it provides insight into both regulation and self-regulation. Particularly useful for the television scholar is Clarke’s explication of the burdens that state regulation carries—burdens that are evident in the case of the FCC. In thinking through FCC action (or inaction) over the decades, scholars can look to Clarke to help explain regulation as process rather than as product.

  • Douglas, Susan. Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899–1922. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

    Douglas’s history is essential reading. Focusing on the years before nationally networked radio, Douglas explains how inventors, regulators, corporations, and the military each shaped and steered the country’s relationship with the airwaves.

  • Holt, Jennifer. “A History of Broadcast Regulations: Principles and Perspectives.” In A Companion to the History of American Broadcasting. Edited by Aniko Bodroghkozy, 171–192. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2018.

    Holt surveys regulation from radio through the digital era concisely, emphasizing central areas of concern, including the public interest, media concentration, deregulation, and programming.

  • Horwitz, Robert Britt. The Irony of Regulatory Reform: The Deregulation of American Telecommunications. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

    An omnipresent source in contemporary writings on media regulation, Horwitz elaborates on the theory, history, and practice of regulation. His work builds to an explication of deregulation that attends to the different circumstances surrounding the deregulation of common carriers and the deregulation of broadcasting.

  • Napoli, Philip M. Foundations of Communications Policy: Principles and Process in the Regulation of Electronic Media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2001.

    Napoli scrutinizes the constants at the core of US media regulation, exploring their application and the bodies that drive and interpret policy.

  • Noll, Roger G., Merton J. Peck, and John J. McGowan. Economic Aspects of Television Regulation. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1973.

    Written at the start of substantial change within the television industry, this study assesses the existing model of television regulation and how the 1970s FCC would and should navigate the wave of emerging technologies.

  • Rabin, Robert L. “Federal Regulation in Historical Perspective.” Stanford Law Review 38.5 (1986): 1189–1326.

    DOI: 10.2307/1228843

    Rabin’s work offers important historical context for the model of cooperative, industry-friendly government regulation that has supported US broadcasting from Herbert Hoover’s leadership at the Department of Commerce in the 1920s through the present day.

  • Streeter, Thomas. Selling the Air: A Critique of the Policy of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226777290.001.0001

    A key intervention in the study of broadcast regulation, this work examines the corporate liberal framework of US broadcasting from radio to cable television and from the license to the audience. It further emphasizes the common assumptions and contradictions at the core of the regulatory process.

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