Constructing television communities: the FCC, signals, and cities, 1948-1957.

Author:Armstrong, John S.
 
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As the new medium of television emerged in the United States between the late 1940s and late 1950s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made decisions that would affect the industry and its audiences for decades to come. This study explores the FCC's attempts to define the local television "community" as it established the structure of U.S. commercial television. (1) In doing so, this research extends two strands of electronic media scholarship.

The first is historical research on the crucial period in which the FCC introduced a national system of television. Studies of this process often emphasize the emergence of a system that, because of the handful of very-high-frequency (VHF) channels assigned to most communities, ensured the survival of just three television networks until the mid-1980s (Brinson, 2000, 2002; Kittross, 1979; Noll, Peck, & McGowan, 1973; Sterling & Kittross, 2002). Historians of this period have also examined FCC Commissioner Frieda Hennock's successful campaign to reserve television channels for educational broadcasters (Barnouw, 1968; Brinson, 2002).

The second strand of research addresses localism, the public interest, and electronic media. Stavitsky (1994) examined U.S. public radio's shift from service dedicated to local, spatially defined communities to service for communities defined by affinities and tastes that cross traditional geographic boundaries. Turow (1997) and Sunstein (2001) warned that new marketing strategies and media technologies are fracturing society into market segments and ideological factions that have little concern for citizens outside their own groups. Napoli (2000) argued that U.S. media policy must acknowledge social configurations that emerge through new technologies, but he also provided evidence that geographic notions of community remain necessary in a democracy where many aspects of life are still governed at the local level. Napoli also demonstrated that, since the 1920s, FCC broadcast policy has been hamstrung by a vague notion of geographic localism. This traditional standard of localism fails to distinguish between programs originated in a local community and those of interest to a local community (Napoli, 2001).

Both these threads of scholarship lack historical research on the dimensions of local, geographic communities served by electronic media. This study of early television history examines how the FCC conceptualized the local community to be served by what would become the most influential, pervasive electronic medium of the 20th century. Based on primary sources that include FCC licensing decisions, FCC policy statements and reports, transcripts of Congressional hearings, and contemporary press accounts, this study demonstrates that the decisions made by the FCC of the late 1940s and early 1950s were fitful, ineffective attempts to link television service to communities already defined as cultural, economic, or political units. The television service area instead became an amorphous aggregate of consumers. Less than 10 years after the FCC issued the Sixth Report and Order of 1952, its blueprint for national television, the 1,291 television communities it envisioned had coalesced into about 275 local television markets (Advertising Opportunities, 1961, p. 134). Even in the early 21st century, the market remains the basic unit of local, broadcast television.

Aufderheide (1999) argued that the cultivation of publics should be central to the design of new communication technologies: "As we map ourselves onto various electronic grids, those grids themselves become places where we define ourselves--as consumers, as citizens, and also as members of the public" (p. 7). Aufderheide was writing about the Telecommunications Act of 1996, but her concerns apply to the FCC's early attempts to define local television audiences as publics. The FCC's experience between 1948 and 1957 is a complex story of administrative confusion, unpredictable new technology, relentless economic pressure, and--perhaps--behind-the-scenes political influence. Ultimately, however, it is a case study of how the ideal of community fell victim to other imperatives in the regulatory process.

The Freeze

The summer of 1948 was a time of uncertainty about the future structure of broadcast television. A headline in Broadcasting-Telecasting proclaimed a "TV CRISIS" after acting FCC Chief Engineer John A. Willoughby suggested that to facilitate moves to other frequencies, VHF Channels 2 through 6 might be stripped from television within the next 2 years ("TV Crisis," 1948). At an FCC hearing in July, former Commissioner and former Chief Engineer E. K. Jett tried to assuage those fears, stating that he expected the 12 channels to be good "at least 10 years from today" ("Jett OK's TV," 1948, p. 25).

On September 29, 1948, the FCC took its first major step toward remedying the allocation problems. The FCC issued a moratorium on the approval of any new television stations beyond the 108 already licensed or with construction permits (Acceptance of Application, 1948). In an attempt to reassure nervous set owners, manufacturers, and broadcasters, FCC Chairman Wayne Coy held a news conference to announce the "Freeze," as it was commonly known. Coy emphasized that television's 12 VHF channels were unlikely to be dropped anytime soon (Crater, 1948). According to Coy, the Freeze would last 6 to 9 months ("Coy Summary," 1948).

In a series of industry-commission engineering conferences held before and after the Freeze order, witnesses offered opinions on the feasibility of moving television (partially or fully) into the ultra-high-frequency (UHF) band, the severity of signal interference, and the appropriate powers and contours for television signals. The last topic elicited testimony that touched on the dimensions of the television community.

One witness, Dr. Frank J. Kear, advocated the adoption of directional antennas and variable transmission powers to tailor signal contours to specific local needs. Kear asserted that coverage areas should be determined by the shape of real communities or economic units, rather than by standardized limits on signal power and antenna height:

This can be, for example, on the basis of the trading area for rural stations, the metropolitan district for metropolitan stations, and the immediate community for community stations. Other definitions can be established but care should be taken to avoid specifying any field intensity contour as the boundary of service. The area to be served should be determined by geographical or economic features, not by the artificial means of field intensity contour. (Official Report, 1948a, pp. 1352-1353) Kear was a consulting engineer retained by the struggling ABC network. ABC badly trailed NBC and CBS in local affiliates and thus had an interest in policies that would increase the number of television stations (Anderson, 1994). Another witness disputed Kear's formula at a subsequent hearing. Kenneth Norton, an engineer for the Federal Bureau of Standards, argued for the widest possible signal areas. Norton advocated expansive signal coverage from large urban centers that would cover rural areas (Official Report, 1948b, pp. 1888-1889). However, attorney Thomas Dowd, representing 25 television stations, urged a similar approach to that of Kear. Dowd proposed that no specific contour standard be rigidly applied, and instead applicants should be given a chance to show what service area would best serve the public interest (pp. 1841-1843). Benedict P. Cottone, the FCC's General Counsel, questioned whether Dowd's suggestion was practical. Cottone wondered if such flexibility would necessitate an FCC hearing on virtually every license application (p. 1847).

Norton, Kear, Dowd, and Cottone represented conflicting notions of how the FCC should approach the question of signal contours and the concomitant problem of shaping and defining television communities. For Norton, the priority was one of maximizing signal coverage, with less concern for matching signal contours to individual communities. Kear, on the other hand, suggested an approach that began with communities or trading areas and then attempted to serve them with congruent television signals. Similarly, Dowd advocated a flexible administrative approach that would establish viable signal contours for each community. FCC General Counsel Cottone, however, raised a weighty administrative consideration: How could the FCC--already facing pressure to expedite allocations--invest the time and resources to draw the boundaries of hundreds of different television communities?

The FCC tentatively answered the question of signal contours in a Notice of Further Proposed Rule Making adopted on July 8, 1949. The Notice proposed five priorities to be followed in the allocation of television frequencies (Television Broadcast Service, 1949, p. 4485). It based these priorities on the two, vague provisions of the Communications Act of 1934, Section 1, which called for radio service "so far as possible, to all the people of the United States" and Section 307 (b), mandating a "fair, efficient and equitable distribution of radio service" (Kahn, 1984, pp. 54, 69). The FCC's five priorities were, in descending order of importance: Priority No. 1. To provide at least one television service to all parts of the United States.

Priority No. 2. To provide each community with at least one television broadcast station.

Priority No. 3. To provide a choice of at least two television services to all parts of the United States.

Priority No. 4. To provide each community with a least two television broadcast stations.

Priority No. 5. Any channels which remain unassigned under the foregoing priorities will be assigned to the various communities depending on the size of the population of such community, the geographical location of such community, and the number of television services available to such...

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