Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
from Popular Electronics,
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
My, how times have changed. In 1960 when this article entitled "Showdown for
the FCC?" appeared in Popular Electronics magazine, the Federal Communications
Commission was being criticized for its failure to properly regulate, monitor, and
police broadcasters who were granted licenses to occupy commercial airwaves. The
FCC faces similar issues today covering a much wider assortment of spectrum bands,
but this particular piece was triggered by a "whistleblower" (a popular term in
today's news) who discovered outcome rigging by the producers of CBS's "Dotto" television
quiz show in 1958. The public, feeling violated by the Columbia Broadcasting System,
used it as a springboard for protesting the FCC's general lack of ignoring other
responsibilities like preventing dishonest and/or misleading and/or "offensive"
advertisement. To demonstrate how far decency standards have fallen in half a century,
one of the products deemed not proper for airing during family programming time
was Preparation H
(hemorrhoid cream). Now, just about anything goes for program or advertising content.
Showdown for the FCC?
Could it be that the recent investigations of radio and TV are
leading to a ... Showdown for the FCC?
By Ken Gilmore
When the Federal Communications sat down last December to decide what it should
do about quiz scandals, payola, and fraudulent advertising, John C. Doerfer, Chairman
at that time, said: "This is an important moment in American history. These hearings
may well determine the future course of our system of broadcasting." He did not
say - although it is equally true - that the FCC's decisions might also determine
the future of the FCC itself.
While no one so far has publicly suggested that the FCC be scrapped, there has
been a flood of bitterly critical statements from lawmakers, educators, business
and civic leaders, and the general public. Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin
has asked for drastic revisions in the Commission and its operations. Even the conservative
New York Times has called for "vigorous, creative new leadership at the FCC." Attorney
General William Rogers, in a May, 1960 sharply worded special report to President
Eisenhower, said that the Commission has been sitting on its hands instead of doing
its job. Television critic Jack Gould summed up the FCC's endless delays and hearings
as "government by vigorous postponement."
Has the FCC fallen down on the job? Here are the facts behind the FCC's latest
nightmare, the quiz scandals.
Rigged Quiz Shows
On July 31, 1958, the Commission received an affidavit from a former contestant
stating that the "Dotto" quiz show had been rigged. The Commission wrote a letter
to CBS asking if the charge were true. CBS replied that it was looking into the
matter, and promised to root out any rigging practices it found. On this evidence,
the Commission dropped the case. It didn't even bother to question the former contestant
who had signed the affidavit.
Charles Van Doren's dramatic confession of being involved in
fixed quizzes sparked country-wide criticism of shady broadcasting practices and
of the FCC.
In September - two months later - a grand jury in New York set out to investigate
quiz shows. The jury asked the FCC for copies of the affidavit, and requested that
an FCC official appear before the jury to help with the investigation. The Commission
told the jury it was busy making a general study of broadcast practices at the time,
and could not comply with either request while this study was under way. With all
this smoke, the Commission saw no reason to suspect fire.
In the fall of 1959 - a year later - the Special Subcommittee on Legislative
Oversight held its spectacular hearings, highlighted by Charles Van Doren's dramatic
confession. Finally, in the face of mounting public indignation and criticism, the
FCC opened its own hearings on December 7th to see what, if anything, it could do.
But the quiz scandal was merely the fuse that set off the explosion of public
anger. One witness after another blasted the FCC for allowing: too much crime and
violence; untruthful, offensive, excessive advertising; and generally shoddy programing
on radio and TV. The Commission was besieged from every quarter for its alleged
How did this situation develop? And what is the FCC really responsible for, by
The Public Interest
Back in the early days of radio, anyone could throw together a few tubes and
wires and become a radio station operator. Soon, the air was so full of squeals,
squawks, and interference that something had to be done to bring some order into
Congress created the FCC to act as a sort of traffic cop - to assign frequencies
and set up minimum standards of operation. One of the principles it set down: the
airwaves belong to the public, not to the broadcasters who use them. Consequently,
broadcasters would have to operate in the "public convenience, interest, or necessity."
Anyone who failed to do so might have his license revoked.
How well has the FCC done the job of seeing that broadcasters operate in the
public interest? Under present practice, the Commission is extremely careful when
issuing new licenses. It holds lengthy hearings to compare the promises of all contenders
as to how they will serve the public. It finally picks the one whose promises seem
best, and issues the license. From that day on, it virtually ignores the licensee
- his past promises are forgotten.
According to Commissioner Doerfer in a speech last November before the Television
Bureau of Advertising, the Commission has been "most liberal" in its interpretation
of what constitutes public service. In fact, the Commission has not refused to renew
a license since 1932. (It did revoke one license in 1946 for fraud.) When Doerfer
was asked recently what policy the Commission used for deciding whether a station's
operation had been in the public interest, he admitted that "there isn't much policy."
With this attitude on the part of the FCC, it is not surprising that the public
periodically gets fed up with broadcasting practices. During World War II, for example,
there was widespread criticism that the FCC did not make stations fulfill their
pre-licensing pledges. After its usual study, the Commission issued a publication
which came to be called the "Blue Book." Its main point was that stations must live
up to their pre-licensing promises about public service. If they had not met those
promises when renewal time came around, they would be required to explain why.
The ensuing uproar shook Washington. Some supporters of the book were publicly
accused of being Communist sympathizers, and broadcasters claimed that the little
book "would destroy the American Way of Life." The outcome of the whole affair was
that the "Blue Book" was simply allowed to fade away, and the FCC has not made much
effort to control standards since.
In 1951, when complaints about TV programing and over-commercialization began
to increase, the Commission announced that "a public conference will be scheduled
at a date to be announced later, for the discussion of television broadcasting problems
from the viewpoint of the public, the Commission, and the industry." To this date
- more than nine years later - the conference has not been held.
John C. Doerfer, who recently resigned as Chairman of the FCC,
makes ready to testify before a congressional subcommittee.
Even in cases of flagrant abuse, the FCC has established a hands-off policy.
For example, since 1957, the Federal Trade Commission has notified the FCC of over
100 cases of stations engaging in false or misleading advertising. What action has
the FCC taken?
According to an FCC public notice, the Commission brought the FTC's complaints
to the attention of the stations involved so that they - the stations - would "be
in a position to consider taking action consistent with their operation in the public
interest." None of these stations has ever been asked at renewal time to explain
Or justify its actions. License renewal is, in fact, virtually automatic. A Commissioner
recently admitted that a staff member routinely spends only about five and one -
half hours checking each renewal.
Whenever examples of flagrant disregard for the public interest are brought to
public attention, the FCC inevitably expresses its faith in the industry's ability
to "clean its own house." As recently as February 5. Chairman Doerfer recommended
that stations, advertising agencies, and others involved in broadcasting set up
a system of voluntary codes, and award a seal of approval to all programs and advertisements
that meet code standards. Said Doerfer, "I have a strong belief that the most effective
way to correct abuses in the broadcast industry is through prompt and farsighted
How well do voluntary codes work? Three years ago the National Association of
Broadcasters began a campaign to get rid of objectionable commercials. The code
board decided that TV commercials on hemorrhoidal remedies should be banned. At
the time, Preparation H, a remedy specifically banned by the board, had ads on 148
TV stations, 84 of which were subscribers to the code. Two weeks later, 17 stations
had resigned from the code rather than give up the ads. Twenty-one others allowed
their seals to be revoked. Naturally, the 64 stations who were not members of the
code to begin with were not affected at all.
While the institution of an industry-wide code such as proposed by Chairman Doerfer
would no doubt do much good - after all, most broadcasters are responsible citizens
- it offers no remedy for those who will not abide by voluntary controls. Withholding
a seal of approval is an empty and meaningless gesture in these cases. Vigorous
and prompt action by the FCC under its power to demand that broadcasters operate
in the public interest or lose their licenses is the only thing that will impress
In all fairness, it must be admitted that careful, fair regulation would be a
tough job. There is a serious shortage of both staff and money. Then, too, with
all the publicity about radio and TV, many of us tend to forget that this is just
one of the FCC's jobs. In addition, it must: license hams and commercial engineers;
assign frequencies for broadcast, experimental, emergency, governmental, military,
and other services; and consult with foreign governments about matters where international
cooperation is required.
But in spite of the difficulties, there are things that could be done. A first
step would be change the laws so that the FCC can fine violators, or suspend their
licenses for a short time. At present, the FCC's only weapon-license revocation
- is such a drastic step that the Commission hesitates to use it. The FCC has asked
for this change, and others.
Of course, the question arises, why didn't the FCC ask for laws which would provide
practical methods of regulation years ago, instead of waiting until it was under
fire? And here, perhaps, is the heart of the matter. For what is most desperately
needed is a Commission that will take the initiative, and not have to be pushed
This, in fact, was the basic issue that led to the recent resignation of Chairman
48 Doerfer. The immediate storm of controversy resulted from the personal favors
he admitted he had accepted from one of the country's largest broadcast station
owners. But it had become clear that Congress and the people felt a need for firmer
The traditional lack of leadership is partly the fault of the system, rather
than of the Commissioners themselves. These men - in spite of their tremendous responsibilities
- are not highly trained civil servants who have devoted a lifetime to an exacting
career. They are rarely experts in the specialized field of broadcasting. They are
simply political appointees who may or may not be reappointed. Their pay - $20,000
a year - does not match the responsibility of their jobs.
The Commissioners are frequently subjected to Congressional pressure. Many Congressmen
hold and have held interests in broadcast stations. This pressure, however subtle,
has done little to increase the Commission's feeling of independence. Under the
circumstances, it is not unusual that the FCC's first goal frequently seems to be
keeping out of trouble and controversy.
Some people think that the entire concept of an unwieldy, slow -moving, pressure-
sensitive Commission may be out of step with the times. In a similar case, Congress
decided it was. In 1958, the Civil Aeronautics Administration -another independent
regulatory agency like the FCC -was abolished and replaced with an agency headed
by a single, efficient administrator.
One commentator suggests that a capable administrator might be able to lay down
standards of honesty and program balance without the years of hearings and indecision
characteristic of multi -membered boards. Many believe policy is more likely to
be made and enforced by a single man, responsible to Congress and the President,
than by a board of commissioners.
Whether or not this kind of thinking gains much momentum depends on the actions
of the various boards -including the FCC - in the next few years. With an aroused
public and a dissatisfied Congress watching its every move, the FCC is facing a
showdown. What it does in the very near future will not only determine the course
of the broadcast industry, but may also spell life or death for the FCC itself.
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