Broadcasting, Self-Regulation of

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As with many other industries, the broadcasting industry practices a form of self-regulation in addition to following the regulations imposed by the government. Self-regulation is attractive for several reasons. First, an industry that regulates itself in certain areas can avoid potentially harsher regulations by the government because the government will often refrain from entering the realm that is already being adequately controlled by the industry itself. Second, self-regulation can expedite the development of standards and practices that can be voluntarily accepted by the industry. Third, and perhaps most valuable, industries that practice self-regulation can gain more public favor than do industries that only rely on government regulation. Therefore, self-regulation can be a good image builder as well as good business practice. This is why the broadcasting industry created the now-defunct National Association of Broadcasters Codes of Practices in the early 1900s and continues to follow many of its tenets.

The National Association of Broadcasters Codes of Practices

In 1929, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the major professional and political organization of the broadcasting industry, created the radio Codes of Practices, which it expanded in 1952 to include television. These codes, inspired by previous court decisions, government urging, and public opinion, were completely voluntary—so much so that fewer than half of the radio stations and two-thirds of the television stations subscribed to them. However, the codes had a great enough presence to gain the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice and eventually be dissolved in 1982.

Among the code provisions were advertising limitations and programming standards. For example, limits were placed on the total amount of advertising time a station could sell, especially during children's programming times. Limits were also placed on the amount of medical-product advertising and the number of contest and other promotional offers that could be accepted. The programming standards suggested by the codes encouraged educational, cultural, children's, and news programming. Alternately, the codes discouraged editorializing as well as the sale of air-time for controversial issues. A third provision was the Family Viewing Time block, which allotted certain evening hours for family-friendly programming that, consequently, contained fewer advertisements.

Several of these provisions, though seemingly altruistic, were questioned by the U.S. Department of Justice. Family Viewing Time, for example, was considered in Writers Guild of America v. Federal Communications Commission (1976) to be a violation of the broadcasters' First Amendment rights because its existence was the product of government pressure. The discouragement of selling time for the presentation of controversial viewpoints was also questioned because of possible intentions to bypass the Fairness Doctrine (as officially outlined in the 1949 document In the Matter of Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees, issued by the Federal Communications Commission). The Fairness Doctrine, created in 1949 and repealed in 1987, required broadcasters to deal with controversial issues of public importance in a fair and even-handed manner; in other words, they had to grant airtime to all sides of a controversial issue if one side of that issue received airtime. By discouraging the sale of air-time for controversial viewpoints, it was presumed that broadcasters were seeking to avoid controversial issues, and thus the provisions of the Fairness Doctrine altogether. However, this presumed avoidance was not the most controversial point of the codes.

The most controversial point of the codes concerned the advertising limits. Broadcasters were accused of limiting their advertising time to increase demand artificially, which would therefore raise the price of that advertising time. This was seen in United States v. National Association of Broadcasters (1982) as a violation of section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act. It was the ultimate downfall of the NAB codes.

These threats of legal action by the U.S. Department of Justice put tremendous pressure on the NAB and those stations that subscribed to the codes. The resulting action was the dissolution of the Codes of Practices for both radio and television in 1982 and the end of an industry-sponsored code of ethics. However, the ideals of the codes and, indeed, some of their practices would remain, absorbed in the standards and practices departments of the networks.

Broadcast Standards and Practices

Among the many departments of a major television network is the department of broadcast standards and practices. This department houses censors who judge potential programs and advertisements in order to determine which program and advertising content is appropriate to air as well as when it is appropriate to air. A hypothetical example of this might be the approval of a made-for-television movie on the condition that it airs only after 9:00 P. M. and that two scenes are eliminated.

In addition to specific program evaluation, the department establishes, alters, and implements network policies regarding programming content, and it ensures that other network departments and production affiliates acknowledge or comply with the various policies. Another arm of the standards and practices department collects comments, complaints, and other feedback from the general public. This enables the department to monitor public opinion and review or change its policies accordingly.

Industry-wide standards also exist, the most visible of which are advertising practices and television content ratings. For example, regarding advertising practices, television stations continue to refrain from airing commercials for hard liquor or cigarette products. It is necessary to note that the Federal Trade Commission has regulations that address the advertising of alcoholic beverages on television. However, this regulation is lenient enough to allow the broadcasting industry to place further restrictions on itself regarding the acceptance of alcohol advertisements. Therefore, this practice is included as a voluntary commitment by the industry, a commitment that has thus far succeeded in circumventing a harsher government regulation.

Television content ratings are also voluntary, although their establishment was caused by government pressure. The pressure came in June 1995, when the U.S. Senate voted to add a provision to the Telecommunications Reform Bill (later the Telecommunications Act of 1996) that would create a Television Ratings Commission to rate television programming in the absence of an industry-crafted system. Naturally, the industry crafted a system.

The industry system for rating television programs contains six labels (TV-Y, TV-Y7, TV-G, TVPG, TV-14, and TV-MA) with accompanying descriptions of specific content. TV-Y indicates that the program is appropriate for young children. TV-Y7 indicates that the program is suitable for children over the age of six. TV-G indicates that the program is suitable for a general audience. TV-PG indicates that parental guidance is suggested because of inappropriate language, violence, or sexual situations. TV-14 indicates that the program is inappropriate for children under age fourteen because it contains mature language, violence, or sexual situations. TV-MA indicates that the program is unsuitable for anyone under age seventeen. These voluntary ratings, compatible with V-chip technology, enable parents to evaluate programming for their children—without government regulation.

See also:Broadcasting, Government Regulation of; Cable Television, Regulation of; Radio Broadcasting; Radio Broadcasting, Station Programming and; Ratings for Television Programs; Telecommunications Act of 1996; Television Broadcasting, Programming and; V-Chip.


Kahn, Frank J., ed. (1978). Documents of American Broadcasting, 3rd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Quello, James H. (1997). "Commissioner Quello'sStatement, June 12, 1997, Re: Proposed Notice of Inquiry on Broadcast Advertisement of Distilled Spirits." <>.

Smith, F. Leslie; Meeske, Milan; and Wright, John W., II.(1995). Electronic Media and Government: The Regulation of Wireless and Wired Mass Communication in the United States. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Francesca Dillman Carpentier