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Broadcasting is changing, but is legislation entirely to blame?

Oct 5, 2016

It's been 20 years since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed during the Clinton administration, and the TV and radio industry claims to still feels its effects.

The legislation sparked public controversy because of the changes it brought to broadcasting, having introduced media cross-ownership and being the first update in government policies for communications in over 60 years. Today, smaller, independent programmers continue to compete with growing media giants in securing a hold on the market.

However, an important thing to consider about the act's intentions is that it was right before the expansion of internet broadband, says Amanda Lotz, professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan.

"There was definitely a sense that this new technology was coming, but there was also a lot of uncertainty," Lotz said. "The world we have here 20 years later was certainly not imagined and not anticipated by the legislation."

Lotz added that this change in technology and ownership has loosened the FCC's hold on U.S. broadcasters.

"You have a regulatory agency that, at this point, is charged with so much and that has never really been able to pay attention to what stations were actually doing on the ground."

"[Digitization] disrupted these industries, and would have disrupted them with this act or not," said Lotz.

The rapid pace of technological change over the past two decades brought increased competition from the public's access to cheaper, individualized technology. More and more people can create podcasts out of their own homes and reach niche audiences by publishing their work online.

Dick Kernen, vice president of industry relations at the Specs Howard School of Media Arts, also spoke to Stateside about how individuals now have the power to compete with broadcasters across the nation.

"I compare radio today to network television back in the early 1980s," said Kernen, who is also a Detroit radio veteran of nearly 60 years. "When you got home from work, you had two or three stations to watch the news on."

The expansion of channels like HGTV and the Weather Channel made Kernen skeptical, as he never expected such a specific interest to gain a wide following. He said that he "jeered and hooted" when he first heard about these new channels, but now admits that he was wrong.

"That's going to happen to radio," continued Kernen. "Radio is going to have to look for narrower and narrower audiences."

Listen to the full interview below: