Telecommunications Act of 1996: Not an Act to Follow

It can be said of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that it revolutionized the radio industry. Years later however, many would argue that it was not for the better as hoped. Despite a few “pros”, the “cons” of this landmark legislation tip the scales and bring the freedom of radio crashing down.

Pros include, as stated by The Museum for Broadcast Communications, that “One section of the bill prohibits the transmission of indecent and obscene material when the material is likely to be seen or read by a minor.” This isn’t censorship, it is responsible broadcasting. Additionally, the act required the development of a rating system that identified any “sexual and indecent or otherwise objectionable programming.” This was part of The Communications Decency Act of 1996, which was embedded in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The bills should have been submitted separately but like so many of the bills that slide through Congress, they are attached to quite noble and worthy ones, hoping to stay hidden in the shadows.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 became a way to line pockets of shareholders. In anticipation of the act, informed station owners were wheeling and dealing ready to gobble up every station they could, while their lobbyists helped to ensure the bills passing. Ownership limits were lifted, allowing stations to operate as many as eight signals in the largest markets. This was a dramatic change from two in any given market. For example, one of the two largest radio broadcasters, Clear Channel, now consists of what used to be 70 separate broadcast companies. It is estimated that due to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, 10,000 radio-related jobs have been lost. As networks own more affiliates, more jobs will disappear as well as the ability to control any of their programming. The power will shift from local programmers to the networks. The local station becomes a “storefront” for the network rather than a local expression of news and media for their local market.

If mistakes aren’t learned from, history WILL repeat itself. Already, greedy shareholders are looking to deregulate the television industry. Will it happen or will consumers stand up? My guess is that when elected officials want to be reelected, they lean in favor of those with the green power.

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