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Historically, TV regulation in various countries has fallen into one of four broad categories. (1) Authoritarian: The government strictly controls the information that is broadcast. (2) Paternalistic: TV programming content is to be determined by a combination of free-market forces and government regulations. (3) Permissive: The marketplace plays a dominant role, with limited regulation from the government. Advertising is the dominant funding source. (4) Pluralistic: This is a blend of paternalistic and permissive frameworks, where the government carefully balances the marketplace and the public interest.
The US is the world’s model for permissive broadcasting regulation. Regulatory authority is given to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC also oversees telecommunications such as the telephone. However, in the paternalistic UK, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport oversees broadcasting while a separate entity, Ofcom, regulates telecommunications. Communist China tends to be authoritarian in its television regulation, and the central government controls all telecommunications.
The FCC requires stations to serve the ‘public interest.’ The US government applies the scarcity rationale, which says the public airwaves are a ‘scarce’ resource and need to be regulated. However, courts in recent years have argued the scarcity rationale may no longer be valid because of the proliferation of other media such as satellite, the Internet, and cable. The UK government has a paternalistic approach and has traditionally seen TV broadcasting as a public service. Therefore, a main mission of the British Broadcasting Corporation has been to provide the citizenry with news, information, and education programs. In authoritarian systems such as those of Saudi Arabia or the People’s Republic of China, the airwaves are considered a government entity, and programming critical of the government is prohibited. Regulatory bodies in most countries are given the power to grant licenses to broadcasters. In the US, the FCC uses a variety of ownership rules to limit how many media outlets may be owned by one person or company.
The FCC in the US is prohibited from “censorship,” but courts have upheld certain content regulations such as political broadcasting rules. These rules ensure that broadcasters do not use the power of the airwaves to favor one candidate over another, especially in regard to political ads. In some countries, politicians are granted free airtime before elections. The FCC more directly regulates content through “indecency rules,” handing out fines to broadcasters that air “patently offensive” material relating to “sexual or excretory activities or organs at a time of day when children are likely to be in the audience.” Over the years, most FCC fines have been issued to radio stations in instances where on-air hosts have used graphic sexual language. The FCC has also fined TV stations for indecency, often for sexual content involving sexual situations and nudity. Such standards are more liberal in countries such as Japan, Brazil, and Germany, where nudity or coarse language is considered less objectionable than in the US. At the opposite end of the spectrum are authoritarian systems like that of China, where indecent or offensive material is prohibited.
The US regulates cable and satellite with more of a ‘hands-off ’ approach because these media do not operate on the ‘public airwaves.’ Many countries have separate government agencies that oversee advertising on television. In Denmark, the Radio and Television Advertising Commission reviews citizen complaints about ads. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) punishes false and misleading advertising. Otherwise, most governments avoid content regulation of commercials. One major exception is advertising for tobacco. The UK bans all TV ads for cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products. The US bans broadcast ads for cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and little cigars. The EU bans cigarette advertising on TV, radio, the Internet, and print media.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), founded in 1865, is an international body comprised of roughly 200 countries. The ITU’s constitution says the organization’s mission is to “promote the extension of the benefits of the new telecommunication technologies to all the world’s inhabitants.” The ITU is a United Nations organization. There are also agencies that deal with telecommunications issues on a regional basis including the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Such regional groups provide technical advice and support to members.
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- Smith, A. & Paterson, R. (eds.) (1998). Television: An international history. New York: Oxford University Press.