Federal Communications Commission Chairman Mark S. Fowler today urged broadcasters to join him in his fight to get Congress to repeal key programming restrictions on radio and television stations.
Speaking at the National Association of Broadcasters convention, Fowler told a highly receptive audience that "the strongest, the most enduring asset for your future is your freedom to program the way you see fit."
To do that, Fowler stressed that broadcasters must lobby Congress and the communities in which they serve to make sure laws are repealed that currently force restrictions on the types of political programs and controversial issues they can broadcast.
Among other things, Fowler said, the "equal time" rules, which require stations to give candidates for the same political office equal opportunity to broadcast their views, must be lifted. The Fairness Doctrine, which requires broadcasters to seek out and broadcast all sides of a controversial issue, must be eliminated, he added.
Under current law, the FCC can revoke licenses of broadcasters that fail to follow these rules.
"Tying renewal of a broadcast license to this percentage of news or that percentage of public affairs, enforcing a doctrine that allows the government to dictate what is reasonable in balancing controversial issues, treating political speech in one medium altogether differently from another--these regulations, whether benign in enforcement or earnest or intent, are at odds with the First Amendment," Fowler said.
Calling these rules "censorship" for the electronic media, Fowler argued that there was no longer any reason for their existence. Originally, the rules were based on the scarcity of television and radio stations. But that scarcity no longer exists, he said, adding that "if advocates of regulation are really concerned about scarcity of outlets, they would try to regulate the content of the scarcer medium of newspapers."
Ever since Fowler joined the commission a year ago, he has made repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and political broadcasting rules his top priority.
His campaign was quickly endorsed by the broadcasting industry, which made the theme of its convention this year "Full First Amendment Rights."
However, several key House and Senate members who support the broadcasters said Congress is unlikely to make changes in current law.
What's more, Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.), a former broadcaster himself, told the broadcasters that their emphasis on repeal of these rules was incorrect. Instead of trying to get rid of these programming restrictions, Swift said the broadcasters should seek legislation guaranteeing competitive equality with cable, pay, direct broadcast and other new television systems that are gradually making inroads in the markets of the traditional broadcasters.
As FCC chairman, Fowler indicated that he was ready to push the agency into lifting many of the restrictions now imposed on radio and television stations.
"In the next six months, hopefully we'll see the commission take a look at television deregulation along the lines of last year's radio deregulation order," in which radio stations no longer are required to broadcast a minimum amount of news and public affairs programs.
Additionally, Fowler said, the commission will be "taking a long hard look at ownership limits," including cross ownership rules that bar television stations from owning cable systems in the same cities in which they operate.
The commission will also consider its current restrictions limiting any one company or person from owning more than seven AM radio stations, seven FM radio stations and seven television stations, Fowler said.
Support for lifting these restrictions appears to be substantial among the seven commissioners. At a panel discussion by commission members today, several argued that the ownership limits were outdated given the increasing competition in the television industry.