THE FCC AND ITS REGULATORY AUTHORITY
The Communications Act.
The FCC was created by Congress in the Communications Act for the purpose of “regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communications service . . . .” (In this context, the word "radio" covers both broadcast radio and television.) The Communications Act authorizes the Commission to "make such regulations not inconsistent with law as it may deem necessary to prevent interference between stations and to carry out the provisions of the Act." It directs us to base our broadcast licensing decisions on whether those actions will serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity.
How the FCC Adopts Rules.
As is the case with most other federal agencies, the FCC generally cannot adopt or change rules without first describing or publishing the proposed rules and asking the public for comment. We release a document called a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) in which we explain the new rules – or rule changes being proposed – and establish a filing deadline for the public to comment. All FCC Notices are included in the Commission’s Daily Digest and posted on our website at https://www.fcc.gov/proceedings-actions/daily-digest. After we hear from the public and consider all comments received, we generally have several options.
Adopt some or all of the proposed rules;
Adopt a modified version of some or all of the proposed rules;
Ask for public comment on additional issues relating to the proposals; or
End the rulemaking proceeding without adopting any rules at all.
You can find information about how to file comments in our rulemaking proceedings by selecting
In addition to adopting rules, we establish broadcast regulatory policies through the individual cases that we decide, such as those involving license renewals, station sales, and complaints about violations of Commission rules.
The FCC’s Structure and the Media Bureau.
The FCC has five Commissioners, each of whom is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Serving under the Commissioners are a number of Offices and operating Bureaus. One of those is the Media Bureau, which has day-to-day responsibility for developing, recommending, and administering the rules governing the media, including radio and television stations. The FCC’s broadcast rules are contained in Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Parts 73 (broadcast, including AM, FM, LPFM, and TV) and 74 (auxiliary broadcast, including low power TV and translator stations). Our procedural rules can be found in Title 47 CFR, Part 1. All of the Title 47 rules can be found on the Government Printing Office’s website, https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?tpl=/ecfrbrowse/Title47/47tab_02.tpl.
Additional information about the Commission’s Offices and Bureaus, including their respective functions, can be found on our website by selecting “Browse by Bureaus and Offices” at https://www.fcc.gov/.
FCC Regulation of Broadcast Radio and Television.
The FCC allocates a portion of the broadcast spectrum to new broadcast stations based upon both the relative needs of various communities for additional broadcast outlets, and specified engineering standards designed to prevent interference among stations and other communications users. Whenever we review an application – whether to build a new station, modify or renew the license of an existing station or sell a station – we must determine if granting the application would serve the public interest. As mentioned earlier, we expect station licensees to be aware of the important problems and issues facing their local communities and to foster public understanding by presenting programming that relates to those local issues. Broadcasters – not the FCC or any other government agency – are responsible for selecting the material they air. The First Amendment and the Communications Act expressly prohibit the Commission from censoring broadcast matter. Our role in overseeing program content is very limited. We license only individual broadcast stations. We do not license TV or radio networks (such as CBS, NBC, ABC or Fox) or other organizations that stations have relationships with, such as PBS or NPR, except if those entities are also station licensees. In general, we also do not regulate information provided over the Internet, nor do we intervene in private disputes involving broadcast stations or their licensees. Instead, we usually defer to the parties, courts, or other agencies to resolve these disputes.
Broadcast Programming: Basic Law and Policy
The FCC and Freedom of Speech.
The First Amendment, as well as Section 326 of the Communications Act, prohibits the Commission from censoring broadcast material and from interfering with freedom of expression in broadcasting. The Constitution’s protection of free speech includes programming that may be objectionable to many viewers or listeners. Therefore, the FCC cannot prevent the broadcast of any particular point of view. In this regard, the Commission has observed that “the public interest is best served by permitting free expression of views.” However, the right to broadcast material is not absolute. There are some restrictions on the material that a licensee can broadcast. These restrictions are discussed below.
Because the Commission cannot dictate to licensees what programming they air, each individual radio and TV station licensee generally has discretion to select what its station broadcasts and to otherwise determine how it can best serve its community of license. Licensees are responsible for selecting their entertainment programming, as well as programs concerning local issues, news, public affairs, religion, sports events, and other subjects. As discussed further in this Manual, broadcast licensees must periodically make available detailed information about the programming they air to meet the needs and problems of their communities, which can be found in each station’s public file. They also decide how their programs will be structured and whether to edit or reschedule material for broadcasting. In light of the First Amendment and Section 326 of the Communications Act, we do not substitute our judgment for that of the licensee, nor do we advise stations on artistic standards, format, grammar, or the quality of their programming. Licensees also have broad discretion regarding commercials, with the exception of those for political candidates during an election, and the limitations on advertisements aired during children’s programming.
Criticism, Ridicule, and Humor Concerning Individuals, Groups, and Institutions.
The First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech similarly protects programming that stereotypes or may otherwise offend people with regard to their religion, race, national background, gender, or other characteristics. It also protects broadcasts that criticize or ridicule established customs and institutions, including the government and its officials. The Commission recognizes that, under our Constitution, people must be free to say things that the majority may abhor, not only what most people may find tolerable or congenial. However, if you are offended by a station’s programming, we urge you to make your concerns known in writing to the station licensee.
In light of their discretion to formulate their programming, station licensees are not required to broadcast everything that is offered or otherwise suggested to them. Except as required by the Communications Act, including the use of stations by candidates for public office, licensees have no obligation to allow any particular person or group to participate in a broadcast or to present that person or group’s remarks.