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FCC Releases Order Dropping Fairness Doctrine

The FCC made it official Wednesday, releasing the order scrapping the fairness doctrine and related rules, which applied to both broadcasting and cable.

That was part of the FCC's pruning of 83 media-related rules it called "nonsubstantive, editorial" revisions, including ones that "merely redirect the reader to see similar, re-numbered rules" and ones that had sunset or been struck down by the courts.

The FCC signaled it had scrapped the doctrine Monday, but had jumped the gun a bit and actually circulated the order among the other commissioners for a 48-hour period before releasing it officially Wednesday.

"This Order deletes both broadcast and cable rules referencing the Commission's so-called 'fairness doctrine.' The Commission abrogated the fairness doctrine in 1987, after concluding that it no longer served the public interest, was not statutorily mandated, and was inconsistent with First Amendment values," said the order, released by Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake and FCC Deputy Managing Director Dana Shaffer.

Because it was essentially procedural housecleaning, the rule excisions did not require a vote by the commissioners.

While the doctrine was generally thought of as a broadcast-related rule, it also affected cable operators to the extent that they originated their own programming. That was not much of an issue back in 1987, when the doctrine was last enforced. But had a new FCC revived it, the proliferation of cable news origination could have brought the wired world into play as well.

The FCC also officially scrapped its cable personal attack and political editorial rules, which should have been scrubbed with the broadcast personal attack and political editorial rules back in October 2000 after a court directed the FCC to do so, but survived, at least technically, because they had been moved out of the scrubbed section.

The order explained it this way: "The D.C. Circuit issued a writ of mandamus directing the Commission immediately to repeal the personal attack and political editorial rules on October 11, 2000, which the Commission did on October 26, 2000.  Through an oversight, however, the Commission failed to delete sections 76.1612 and 76.1613 at the time: shortly before the repeal order was adopted, the cable personal attack and political editorial rules had been relocated to different rule sections as part of a non-substantive rule restructuring, and the order repealing them referred to the superseded rule sections rather than the new ones. Thus, the Commission's cable personal attack and political editorial rules, 47 C.F.R. 76.1612 and 76.1613, are without current legal effect and are deleted as obsolete."

Other rules excised include the broadcast flag rules, which were meant to prevent "indiscriminate" distribution of broadcast content over the Internet, said the FCC, but thrown out by the courts.

Finally, the order deleted rules for filing and adjudicating cable rate complaints for tiers beyond the basic tier. Basic rates are still regulated absent a showing of effective competition, but rate regulation for higher tiers sunset in 1999, though the regs stayed on the books.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.