Killing Public Access?

October 1st, 2013 by Andy in Media and Democracy

This posting by Alexandra Coakley at the New America Foundation provides a good synopsis of the history of public access, what it is, why it is, and where it is heading today. Access is under serious assault, one driven by both ideology (commercial speech holding reign over public, non-monetized means of communication), as well as a misperception that access is simply the institutionalization of an outdated technology (cable television), and it no longer serves a meaningful purpose in our net connected age of YouTube and such. This misses the fundamental point that it is about access, and providing both the education and the means for people to be able to communicate in among their community using the prevalent technologies of the day, whatever they may be.

And for those who say that the public doesn’t need access to the standard cable channels in our age of the internet, that it is no longer where audiences are, I’ll believe that to be true as soon as the Super Bowl is no longer made available on television, and is transmitted exclusively over the internet.

Public access television began as a dream and a struggle of community activists. They saw in cable a new platform for alternative voices—a counterbalance to the gridlocked political commentary that dominated commercial news channels. And for many, public access TV became an effective way to engage local constituents and spur discussion. Gearing up for his 1996 bid for the Illinois Senate, a young Barack Obama shared his political journey in his first televised interview on a government-access cable program—Connie Martinson Talks Books. But today, mainstream media—from Fox News to MSNBC—has subverted community cable. And its advocates are sounding the alarm.   

“In this democracy, we should have the ability to use our airwaves—it’s basic,” said Tonya Gonzalez, Vice President of Public Affairs for DCTV, in a recent conversation at New America about how cable and telephone industry lobbying has undercut Public, Educational and Governmental Access Channels, or, “PEG Channels.” Mark Lloyd, moderator and Director of New America Foundation’s Media Policy Initiative, kicked off the discussion with a key question: How is PEG funded today and why is it in trouble?

In theory, PEG is still funded by the citizens. Bunnie Reidel, director for American Community Television (ACT), explained that cable companies lay their wires on public routes maintained by taxpayer dollars. Because of this, the 1984 Cable Act allowed local governments to negotiate with small-scale cable providers and reserve an agreed upon percentage of funding and airtime for public access programming. But since then, the cable industry has expanded and modernized. Cable and telephone conglomerates like Comcast, Time Warner, and AT&T bought out smaller cable operators and launched massive lobbying efforts aimed at state governments. They sought to limit the negotiating power of local franchise authorities, and they’ve been hugely successful. According to a 2011 Buske Group and Alliance for Communications Democracy study on the state of PEG , new state franchising laws enacted in 2005—coupled with local government cooperation—have closed PEG Access Centers in 100 communities across the country, with hundreds more estimated to be at risk for closure or significant funding cuts over the next three years.

“But isn’t the audience the determinant of what gets on the air?” Lloyd asked what the demand for PEG looks like—especially in an era virtually desensitized to commercialism and inundated with newer, faster media outlets. It’s complicated, the panelists noted, because cable company power-grabs have depleted PEG channels of the funds necessary to revive public enthusiasm. Many studios lack up-to-date equipment, let alone marketing budgets. The 1996 Telecommunications Act has also prevented PEG centers from using public support fees for operational costs, limiting their ability to improve programming. In the meantime, the public seems to have forgotten that they have a right to their airwaves. That’s a problem, because Public Access TV is meant to give voice to its audience—protected from commercial interests.  

Robyn Holden, a producer and program host at DCTV and the founder of The National Media Consortium, relayed her experience as a local elected official in Washington to underline how PEG serves a democratic role unmet by commercial programming. She produces a show at DCTV called “The ANC and You,” which provides information on DC Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners—local politicians one rung beneath city council members, and the officials most in touch with the concerns of their immediate communities. ANC commissioners typically engage with 50 to 100 people at community meetings, but Holden argued that PEG allows this kind of micro-level discourse broader reach. In her own term as an ANC commissioner, she noticed that identical concerns were raised in multiple jurisdictions. What they needed, she said, was high-quality, Public Access programming to unite people on the issues—within and across disparate municipalities.   

Public Access TV supporters are fighting back. PEG is embracing social media to get the message out—DCTV streams its programs live on any mobile device. And ACT is rallying support for the CAP Act , which will restore PEG funding in the states where it’s been slashed and expand the ways that PEG Access Centers can allocate that funding—including operational overhead. The CAP Act will also help to reinvigorate support by requiring that cable operators transmit PEG channels at no cost to the local government.

For many communities, PEG remains a well-kept secret. But the panelists believe that this can change. The challenge now will be to remind voters that Public Access TV is still a relevant and needed pillar of local political life.

Read the original post on In The Tank: A Blog From The New America Foundation

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