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’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.
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 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.