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Television is the most powerful medium of mass communication seen regularly by most persons in the United States. Television signals may be delivered by using antennas (broadcast), communication satellites, or cable systems. Because of television's societal impact, the federal government regulates companies that operate television systems.

Experimental television systems were developed in the 1930s, but commercial exploitation did not occur in the United States until the late 1940s. Initially, television signals were broadcast from antennas and received by a television set in a person's home or business. Improved technology led to the replacement of black-and-white images with color signals in the 1960s.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which was established by the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq.), originally was charged with the regulation of radio. With the introduction of television and the need for television stations to obtain FCC licenses to use broadcast frequencies, the FCC assumed sole jurisdiction over the television industry.

Television broadcasts may be regulated for content. Typically, this regulation has focused on broadcasts of allegedly obscene or indecent material. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld regulations banning obscene material, as Obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It has also permitted the FCC to prohibit material that is "patently offensive" and either "sexual" or "excretory" from being broadcast during times when children are presumed to be in the audience (FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726, 98 S. Ct. 3026, 57 L. Ed. 2d 1073 [1978]).

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 (Pub. L. No. 104-104) mandated the establishment of an advisory committee for the rating of video programming that contains indecent materials for purposes of parental control. The act also required televisions with screens 13 inches or larger, manufactured after 1998, to be equipped with a so-called V chip to allow parents to block programs having a predesignated rating for sex and violence. In 1998, the FCC approved the program rating system developed by the networks to assist parents in monitoring the shows their children watch.

Cable Television has grown tremendously since the 1980s. Cable television originally served communities in mountainous regions that had difficulty receiving broadcast transmissions. Many communities solved this problem by erecting tall receiving towers to capture broadcast signals and retransmit them over wires running from the tower to homes that subscribed to this service.

During the 1970s and 1980s, large corporations installed cable systems in every large metropolitan area in the United States, as well as in many rural areas. Independent programming was transmitted on cable systems by companies such as Home Box Office (HBO) and Cable News Network (CNN).

Although cable television could not be categorized as broadcasting in the traditional sense, the FCC adopted the first general federal regulation of cable systems. Local government also became involved, as each municipality had to award a cable system franchise to one vendor. Cable operators negotiated system requirements and pricing with local governments, but federal law imposed some restrictions on rates to consumers.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated cable television rates, in part because of increased interest by telephone companies in entering the cable market by sending programming through existing phone lines. The act permits phone companies to provide video programming directly to subscribers in their service areas.

Even prior to deregulation in 1996, companies in the telecommunications industry had been involved in major mergers. In 1985, Capital Cities acquired the ABC network, and one year later, General Electric acquired NBC. In 1995, two major mergers occurred, as Westinghouse bought CBS for a reported $5.4 billion, and the Walt Disney Company purchased Capital Cities/ABC for a reported $19 billion. Disney went on to purchase or otherwise acquire a wide range of cable networks as well, including ESPN, Fox Family Worldwide, the History Channel, and E! Entertainment Television.

Since deregulation, companies have merged to create even larger media conglomerates. A number of commentators have questioned whether the presence of a few enormous entities would stifle competition in the industry. Others questioned whether federal antitrust policy would need to be adapted to address concerns about such large corporations owning multiple media entities. Many of these questions have gone unanswered, and in many ways consumers have benefited from the products that these conglomerates offer. For instance, since the late 1990s, the ABC network has enhanced its sports coverage through its association with ESPN by offering dual coverage of certain sporting events, such as professional football.

For customers who cannot obtain cable television programming, the transmission of television signals by satellite has been a practical solution. In the 1990s, however, direct broadcast satellite (DBS) systems began to compete with cable television systems by going after a broader consumer base. The DBS systems offer high-quality video and audio signals, and access to a wide range of programming.

The development of digital high-definition television (HDTV) was the broadcast television industry's top priority in the 1990s and into the 2000s. HDTV, which has a significantly finer picture resolution than an ordinary television screen, requires additional broadcast frequencies, which the FCC must license to broadcasters. Broadcast television, which saw its viewership steadily drop as cable and DBS became popular, sees HDTV as a way to reclaim its market share.

Further readings

Compaine, Benjamin M., and Douglas Gomery. 2000. Who Owns the Media?: Competition and Concentration in the Mass Media. 3d ed. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Creech, Kenneth. 2002. Electronic Media Law and Regulation. 4th ed. Boston: Focal Press.


Fairness Doctrine; Mass Communications Law.

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