The scarcity rationale is a legal theory that supports government regulation of traditional broadcasters because the broadcast spectrum is limited or scarce. The theory provides for more limited recognition of First Amendment freedoms for broadcasters than for other media. It also has come under heavy criticism.

The scarcity rationale developed during the formative years of U.S. broadcasting. However, the first lengthy explanation of the rationale did not appear until the Supreme Court’s decision in National Broadcasting Co. v. United States (1943). The Court explained that because the radio spectrum was not wide enough to accommodate everyone who wished to use it, and because the potential existed for spectrum interference, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should play a role in “determining the composition of that traffic.”

In 1969 the Supreme Court reaffirmed the scarcity rationale in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. Federal Communications Commission. In addition to determining who could broadcast, the Court found that “because of the scarcity of radio frequencies” the government could place restraints on broadcast licensees to ensure that the views that “should be expressed” were expressed. Red Lion therefore firmly established spectrum scarcity as the constitutional underpinning for both broadcast licensing and broadcast content controls.

In a 1987 report, the FCC argued that the scarcity rationale was no longer valid because technological innovations had made the number of frequencies almost limitless. In 1994 the Supreme Court failed to reject the scarcity rationale as applied to broadcasters in Turner Broadcasting System Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission (1994). However, the Court did determine that the scarcity rationale was irrelevant to the cable industry.

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