Having deregulated radio in 1981, the Federal Communications Commission moved last week to lift several longtime restrictions from commercial television. Applause was far from unanimous. There will be court and congressional challenges.
The move, responsive to Reagan administration policy, appears to be a worthwhile experiment in extending the free-speech guarantee of the US Constitution in broadcasting. The public will render the final verdict.
Under the new ruling, stations will no longer have to provide a minimum amount of news and local programming. Is that in the public interest?
The requirement that no more than 16 minutes of each hour be used for commercials has been dropped. Will the networks and local stations abuse this freedom? TV stations will no longer be required to keep a detailed, daily log of what they broadcast. Will this hamper critics in making their cases at license-renewal time?
Local and network television spokesmen say deregulation will work. Others charge it will result in lower-quality programming and less public service. And some wonder when the FCC might decide to eliminate the so-called fairness doctrine and the equal-time rule, both of which have great impact on political campaigns.
A court challenge to even broader deregulation of radio was successful only in getting the logging requirement restored. But it is easier to justify deregulation of radio because of the multiplicity of outlets across the nation. Broadcast TV channels are much more limited.
With the rapid growth of cable and satellite television, as well as the use of information and communication devices such as videotapes, the limited-access argument has lost much of its effect. It is pointed out, however, that many Americans do not have access to these sources.
Whether the FCC or Congress should implement de-regulation is also at issue. A number of bills at various stages in the Senate and House of Representatives provide for deregulation or reregulation. It seems best that Congress set at least basic regulatory guidelines.
The desire to let free-speech and free-market principles rule in the case of broadcasting is understandable. But caution, concern for public welfare, and adherence to the legislative process are all in order.