As an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934, the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 formally gave the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) jurisdiction over the cable television industry.

Act brought First Amendment challenges for interfering with expressive rights

The act subsequently elicited several First Amendment challenges for allegedly interfering with the expressive rights of the cable industry.

The 1984 act codifies many of the regulations governing cable that had developed during the 1960s. One result was that the FCC no longer has to justify its regulation of cable television based on cable’s interface with over-the-air, broadcast television.

The four most significant provisions of the act affect:

Local government can award franchises

State and local governments received power to award franchises and to determine the qualifications necessary for systems to be awarded local franchises.

State or local governments can revoke an operator’s franchise or deny renewal of it if the operator fails to comply substantially with the existing agreement, provides inferior service, proves to be legally or technically unqualified, or fails to meet the future needs of the community.

Rates can only be regulated for basic cable service with no competition

The act allows regulation of rates only for basic cable service, and then only if no effective competition exists. Cable operators claimed a victory because, given competition from other communication technologies, they perceived rate regulation as unnecessary. Those who opposed the provision argued that cable operated as a monopoly.

Act requires cable to set aside PEG channels

The 1984 act requires cable operators to set aside channels for public, educational, and governmental use, commonly known as PEG channels. The cable operator exercises little control over the content on these channels, which are used for a wide variety of programming, including but not limited to public meetings, delivery of instructional material, and student-produced television programs.

Act gives cable operators First Amendment protection

Although the cable act includes a provision punishing the transmission of obscenity over the cable system, it gives cable operators First Amendment protection for program content (unlike over-the-air broadcasters). State and local government franchisors may specify the number and types of channels and authorize public access, but cannot require specific program services.

Act was later revised to increase competition

The Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 revised the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 and the Communications Act of 1934.

The primary effect of these changes was to increase competition. Although cable companies could now offer telephone services, telephone companies could also offer cable television. The deregulation of ownership rules set forth by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 encouraged mergers and buyouts of cable companies.

This article was originally published in 2009. Roger Heinrich is a professor in the Department of Media Arts at Middle Tennessee State University where he teaches media law. He spent 26 years working in the broadcast industry, both in radio and television.

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