Since the FCC’s founding, the act of determining whether a licensee has fulfilled its responsibilities under the “public interest, convenience and necessity” standard of the Act has varied a great deal depending upon the composition of Commission and the various orders or requests from Congress. The FCC enjoys broad authority under section 303 to do the following:
- approve equipment and set standards for levels of interference
- assign frequencies and power
- classify stations and prescribe services
- issue cease and desist orders
- levy fines and forfeitures
- make regulations for stations with network affiliations
- prescribe qualifications for station owners and operators
Perhaps the FCC’s most important powers are those associated with licensing. These powers allow the FCC to license or short-license broadcast licenses. It can also withhold, fine, revoke or renew broadcast licenses and construction permits based on its own evaluation of whether the station has served in the public interest. Even though the FCC can revoke a license, it has not used this authority much over its 60-year history.
Before the era of deregulation, the FCC had a set of complicated rules and regulations for broadcasters. At the same time, it also gave licensees a lot of scope to determine what constituted service in the public interest based on local needs; this was known as the “Ascertainment Policy.” Once the FCC licensed a station, the station’s operator had to monitor the technical, operational, and programming functions of the station. It also had to maintain files on all aspects of station operations for several years.
The requirements for filing for and renewing licenses for broadcasters are greatly reduced today. But when two or more applicants compete for the same license or when someone challenges a Petition to Deny, the FCC determines which of the rival applicants is the most qualified to own and operate the broadcasting facility. There are strict procedures for hearings that ensure that the applicants’ rights are protected. Consequently, the FCC’s adjudicative process can be expensive and time-consuming.