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What is the FCC?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an agency of the United States charged with regulating essentially all communications in or originating in the United States. This means that the FCC is responsible for administering the television and radio airwaves, satellite and cable transmissions, and telegraph communications. The FCC was created as a direct successor to the Federal Radio Commission, the federal body in charge of radio communications within the United States. With the advent of television, it was apparent that a body with a broader mission would be necessary, and it made sense to group a number of similar duties together under one umbrella. The Congress created the FCC with the Communications Act of 1934.

The FCC is governed by five commissioners who are appointed directly by the President of the United States. No more than three of these commissioners may belong to the same political party, a stipulation meant to keep the FCC from becoming too much the wing of a specific party’s politics. Each member of the commission is appointed for a five year term.

The FCC administers telegraph communications.
The FCC administers telegraph communications.

The FCC’s primary power comes from its ability to renew or decline to renew licenses to broadcasting stations. In an earlier era of television, this allowed the FCC to dictate rather strongly what content was and was not appropriate for broadcast. However, since the advent of cable and satellite television – two areas the FCC does not have the same powers over – this has become less important. While the FCC still occasionally fines affiliate networks for violating its content guidelines – as in the infamous Janet Jackson indecency fine during Superbowl XXXVIII – they seem less inclined to exercise this power than they have in the past.

Congress created the FCC in 1934.
Congress created the FCC in 1934.

Prior to the 1980s, the FCC also set out a number of guidelines meant to keep the public stations as vessels primarily for the public good. A certain amount of hours of each broadcast day were required to be devoted to non-entertainment programming, such as educational or news shows. The rules regarding monopolies were also much stricter historically, and as they were loosened during the Regan administration, a number of affiliates were bought up by larger companies, reducing programming diversity significantly.

The FCC has diminished control over satellite transmissions.
The FCC has diminished control over satellite transmissions.

The FCC also regulates radio stations, and in this area it uses its powers significantly more than in television. A number of indecency cases have been brought by the FCC against radio stations for broadcasting material the commission felt was not appropriate for public airwaves. With the rise in satellite radio stations, however, it is likely that the FCC’s control over the radio will fade in much the same way it has in television.

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Discussion Comments


Why did you have to use the Janet incident as something for an example of indecency on television? There are so many talk show hosts and kids shows that do worse. Please keep Janet out of it. She does nothing these kids and parents haven't seen on sites like world star hip hop. They need to regulate that filth.


Anon118782, you could simply teach your children the ways of life instead of relying on the FCC to hide them from it.

Everyone, try this sometime: Teach your child about a subject and let them make their own decision about it. I know that's a crazy concept, but I think it just might work!

If you actively play the role of parent, you won't need anyone else to do it for you.


I find it infuriating that we can't hear what's really being said by say, firefighters on a rescue mission with people dying all around them, or an entire stadium full of fans at a basketball game. These are just words, people!

We all have to live in the same world together. Why must I have to tolerate this censorship because you have children? This hyper sensitivity to naughty language is ridiculous.


I wonder what will happen to the FCC commissioners' power if "television" continues to move towards internet and "web" shows as much as it has been in the last few years. While still not the main source of such entertainment by any means, the internet is constantly growing in power over or at least alongside television, and it is not regulated the same way at all. Is this good or bad? Who can step into change this, if it needs to be changed? Who knows?


For the past 10 or so years, radio and television has been permitted to say anything indecent. I remember in the 80's it was a shock to hear the word "damn" or "hell" and it was very infrequent.

When will the FCC step in and control the inappropriate radio talk shows and songs that don't bleep out unsuitable content? It's very tiresome censoring everything children watch and listen to. Even the family oriented programs have suggestive innuendos. Come on! Take initiative and clean it up!

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    • The FCC administers telegraph communications.
      By: Adrio
      The FCC administers telegraph communications.
    • Congress created the FCC in 1934.
      By: vlad_g
      Congress created the FCC in 1934.
    • The FCC has diminished control over satellite transmissions.
      By: yuriy
      The FCC has diminished control over satellite transmissions.