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Radio and Television Regulation: Broadcast Technology in the United States, 1920-1960

Author(s):Slotten, Hugh R.
Reviewer(s):Scott, Carole E.

Published by EH.NET (March 2002)

Hugh R. Slotten, Radio and Television Regulation: Broadcast Technology in

the United States, 1920-1960. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,

2000. xv + 308 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-6450-x.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Carole E. Scott, Department of Economics, State

University of West Georgia.

Through a detailed reconstruction of key policy decisions, Hugh Slotten’s

Radio and Television Regulation: Broadcast Technology in the United States,

1920-1960 seeks to analyze the role of radio and television engineers in

the regulation of radio and television. “This book examines key decisions made

by government institutions that oversaw the development of the radio and

television industry….[it] specifically focuses on the intersection of

technical issues and the social, political, legal, and economic components of

decision making.” Slotten hopes that this focus on engineering standards will

help “illuminate the complex interplay between technical issues and such

fundamental concerns as monopoly concentration, patent structure, and control

of information.” As these quotes indicate, however, the book’s title is

somewhat misleading. Perhaps The Role of Engineers in the Regulation of the

Radio and Television Industry would have been a more appropriate title?

Surveying, selecting, organizing, and presenting in a coherent and meaningful

manner the tremendous amount of material that must be considered in writing a

book of this type is a monumental task. Therefore it is almost inevitable that

this book displays some weakness in this regard. It is unfortunate, however,

that a book about the regulation of radio and television broadcasting, which

devotes much of its attention to the various responsibilities and activities of

the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), never provides a complete and

succinct description of the FCC. A statement along these lines would have been

helpful: The Federal Communications Act of 1934, which replaced the Radio Act

of 1927, incorporated most of the 1927 act’s provisions for radio. The only

significant difference between these two acts is that the 1934 act combined

into one agency — the Federal Communication Commission — regulatory powers

over radio, telegraph, and telephone and gave it seven, rather than the five

members of the Federal Radio Commission had. The FCC’s members are appointed by

the President and confirmed by the Senate. In addition to issuing licenses, it

makes rules covering engineering matters, general program standards, and

competitive practices. (The first mention of the FCC is on page viii, where the

reader is told that it has overseen the development of radio and television

since 1934. It is next mentioned on page x, where it is explained that “The

1934 Communications Act, which established the Federal Communications

Commission (FCC), sought to centralize the government’s administration of

communications in one federal agency; as far as the regulation of radio

broadcasting was concerned, the 1934 law essentially institutionalized the

policies of the radio commission.” The identical description of the FCC also

appears on page 44.)

One of Slotten’s most important conclusions is that because, during the 1920s,

“U.S. engineers forged an alliance with the businessmen who paid their

salaries,” the heavy reliance of the Federal Radio Commission on engineers was

based on a false belief that they were unbiased and objective. However, he also

concludes, that these experts “played an important role in finessing dilemmas

inherent to corporate liberalism, including the tension between individualism

and corporate collectivism as well as the dialectic between neutral legalism

and pluralist decision making.” Unfortunately, he does little to expound upon

these themes. There were, he notes, some engineers whose opinions were not

colored by the business interests of their employers. One of these was radio

pioneer Lee de Forrest, an early president of the Institute of Radio Engineers.

De Forrest, an inventor and entrepreneur who spoke out against what he called

the greed of direct advertising, espoused, says Slotten, a philosophy of what

was in the public interest that was in no way related to his technological

expertise. Oddly, De Forest’s less than sterling reputation as a businessman is

not mentioned.

In other places, Slotten’s analysis provides useful insights into the reasons

that that social, economic, and political factors need to be considered along

with technical ones. He points out that social, economic, and political factors

meant that difficult technical trade offs had to be made. For example, policy

makers agreed that widespread access to TV was in the public interest, but in

order for many people to purchase TV sets, they must be cheap; so expensive

sets and sets that might soon need to be replaced will not do. The companies

that were developing the technology necessary for the creation of a television

broadcasting industry wanted to begin earning a return on their substantial

investments sooner, rather than later. Setting standards as soon as they wished

might have meant that TV sets would soon become obsolete as new and better

technologies were developed. A high quality picture was in the public’s

interest, but not setting standards so that TV broadcasting could begin because

a new technology that would provide a better picture might soon be developed

could result in an interminable delay. Patents forced each company to develop

its own system. Common standards would enable every TV set to receive all

broadcasts and, thereby, prevent monopoly, but each company pressed the FCC for

the adoption of their system. Flexible standards would allow for improvements

based on new technology to be introduced. Increasing channel width would allow

for a better picture, but it would reduce the number of frequencies available

for other services. Obviously, such trade offs were not easy to make.

This book is a good resource for those interested in learning in some detail

about the nature and importance of the input provided to the Radio Commission

and the Federal Communications Commission by engineers and the numerous

disagreements among engineers and between them and non-engineers and the

reasons for this conflict. Its weakness is that, if it were fiction, it would

be a book of short stories, rather than a novel.

Carole Scott is the author of “The History of the Radio Industry in the US to

1940″ in the EH.NET Encyclopedia.

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII