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Trump’s Call to Challenge Network Licenses Unlikely to Succeed

Throughout the early stages of Donald Trump’s presidency, the President has consistently stated that he is treated unfairly by the media. Recently, he made comments suggesting he would like to take steps to rectify this situation. On October 11,, President Trump sent out a tweet suggesting that the government might regulate television networks treating him unfairly by challenging their FCC licenses.1 In this post, I will dissect the relevant aspects of that tweet by examining the broadcast licensing process, including how and why the licenses are issued, how the licenses can be challenged, and ultimately, whether President Trump or his administration would be able to successfully mount such a challenge.

I. The FCC and the Licensing Process  

The Federal Communications Commission (the “FCC”) is an independent federal agency tasked with regulating radio and television broadcasting.2  In order to operate a broadcast station over the public airwaves, the radio or TV station must first obtain a license from the FCC.3 By licensing broadcast stations, the FCC is able to ensure efficient and reliable access to TV and radio broadcasts across the country.4 Once a license is issued, the licensee is subject to regulations imposed by the FCC.5 One such regulation requires that the station be operated in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.”6 The licenses are valid for eight years, after which the licensee must seek renewal of its license in order to continue operations.7

Once the station has filed to renew its license, independent third parties may file petitions to contest the license renewal if they believe the station has failed to act in the public interest.8 However, such an individual must be a “party in interest”, meaning typically that he or she is a regular listener or viewer that has a real stake in the outcome of the renewal process.9 The petition must also be supported by an affidavit submitted by someone with personal knowledge of the allegations.10

II. Trump’s Suggestion to Challenge Network Licenses

President Trump’s suggestion to challenge “network” licenses would almost assuredly fail for several reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that television networks (such as NBC, CBS, etc.) do not obtain licenses from the FCC.11 While individual broadcast stations frequently contract with television networks to serve as network affiliates, the individual stations are the only party subject to the license requirement.12 Thus, in order to challenge a particular network (for example, NBC), every licensed station that is affiliated with that network would have to be challenged.

Furthermore, absent blatant violation of FCC regulations that would result in the FCC taking action against a station on its own behalf,13 a petition to deny renewal must be brought by a party in interest.14 Because a party in interest must have a real stake in the outcome of the renewal, a party in interest typically takes the form of a citizen from the community in which the station is broadcast.15 In combination with the above point, quite the concerted effort would be required to ensure a party in interest files a petition to deny licensure for every licensed affiliate of a particular network.

Finally, it is highly unlikely that the TV networks President Trump has reffered to engaged in any activity that would lead to the FCC declining to renew a station’s license. For the most part, the First Amendment prevents the FCC from censoring or regulating the content that is broadcast on a given TV or radio station.16 However, the right of a station to broadcast what it wants is not absolute and is subject to a few restrictions. For example, obscene material is not allowed to be broadcast at any time, and the FCC can set restrictions on when a station is permitted to broadcast indecent or profane material.17 Furthermore, the FCC has the authority to issue penalties for knowingly broadcasting false information.18 However, in order to support allegations that a station has intentionally misrepresented information, the FCC must receive documented evidence that proves that claim, such as testimony from someone with direct personal knowledge of an intentional falsification of the news.19 Without such evidence, the FCC typically cannot intervene.20 Ultimately, these factors would make it incredibly difficult for President Trump to see his suggestion come to fruition.21

  1. Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter (Oct. 11, 2017, 8:55 AM),

  2. Is It Within A President’s Power To Strip Broadcast Licenses?, Wash. Post (Oct. 12, 2017),

  3. See The Public and Broadcasting: How to Get the Most Service from Your Local Station, F.C.C. 8-9 (July 2008),

  4. Id. at 8. 

  5. Id. at 7. 

  6. Id. at 6. 

  7. Id. at 9. 

  8. Public Participation in the License Renewal Process, F.C.C. (Oct. 2003),

  9. Id. 

  10. Id. 

  11. F.C.C., supra note 3. 

  12. Wash. Post, supra note 2. 

  13. Id. 

  14. Public Participation in the License Renewal Process, F.C.C. (Oct. 2003),

  15. Id. 

  16. F.C.C., supra note 3. 

  17. Id. at 15. 

  18. Complaints About Broadcast Journalism, F.C.C. (Sept. 13, 2017),

  19. Id. 

  20. Id. 

  21. Wash. Post, supra note 2.