Nov
01
2009

Putting the Public Back in Public Media

Access channels offer an alternative

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/st bernard

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/st bernard

For most Americans, “public broadcasting” means the local PBS affiliate. But there’s another kind of non-commercial media that’s established by the government: public access channels.

PEG (Public, Educational and Governmental) channels, as they’re officially known, are created by agreements between municipalities and cable companies: In exchange for getting access to lay their cable through public rights of way, the cable company pays in the form of setting aside channels for the community to run themselves, plus a small fee of up to 5 percent of the cable company’s gross revenue (New York Times, 11/8/2005).

In many communities, that money helps to fund community production centers where the public can learn to use video equipment and produce their own programming for those public channels. (The government and education channels are typically run by the local government and school district.) Some centers receive additional funding from the government, foundations and individual donors. As of 2007, there were over 3,000 such centers across the country (OurChannels.org/alpha.htm).

This system, created by a patchwork of local government agreements that are loosely regulated at the federal level, does a remarkable job of safeguarding programming from outside influence and encouraging cable programming to meet local needs. The FCC’s 1984 Cable Franchise Policy prohibited cable companies from exercising editorial control over public access programming, and advertising is typically prohibited. Each local access center is set up differently, but those that are run by nonprofits (rather than the city or the cable company itself) often use bylaws to set up a diverse board in order to keep the city or other powerful interests from exerting undue influence on content (FCC.gov).

Public access programming sometimes gets a bad rap as Wayne’s World-style vanity projects with low production quality. But public access truly offers a voice to everyone in a community, and some notable news programming has thrived on the PEG system, such as Free Speech TV and Paper Tiger Television. And most access channels regularly feature a variety of shows covering local news, particularly news produced by and concerning underserved communities—something that’s increasingly difficult to get from other media. In St. Paul, Minn., for example, the weekly show Voices for Change is produced by people who are currently or formerly homeless, helping them learn production skills and tell their stories (CNN.com, 10/6/09); in New York, Black Men Screaming focuses on African-American empowerment.

Some centers, such as those in Sacramento, Calif., and Grand Rapids, Mich., have recently launched programs to train citizen journalists and provide outlets for their local news production. Money makes a difference here; cities with better-funded community access can provide better equipment and training to local producers, who in turn can create higher-quality shows.

The system isn’t free from trouble. Because PEG agreements have to be created by local governments and then renegotiated regularly with cable companies, it can be a constant struggle first to get public access and then to keep it. Cable providers don’t like to give up any of their profits or prime channels, and they regularly throw heavy resources into trying to kill, underfund or shift PEG channels to subprime spectrum (e.g., Broadcasting & Cable, 10/6/09).

In 1996, the telcos pushed through a rewrite of the cable act, which put lower caps on access fees and restricted their usage to equipment, leaving centers struggling to fund their studios and staff (Common Cause.org, 5/9/05). And in 2006, the industry lobbied for legislation that would have let them negotiate franchise agreements on the state level, eliminating local accountability. The bill failed, but the companies then went directly to the states themselves and managed to rewrite the laws in 19 states, arguing that such changes were needed to reduce high cable rates.

Since then, many communities in those states, from Los Angeles (L.A. Times, 1/5/09) to northern Indiana (OurChannelsIndiana.org, 11/18/07), have already lost their access centers due to lax state negotiating—exactly the telcos’ goal. Others have suffered funding decreases, lost signal quality and function, or been hit with new monthly carriage fees, all while cable rates have largely increased (Alliance for Community Media survey, 5/08).

At the same time, there are success stories. Persistent Philadelphia activists finally got PEG channels after some 25 years of struggle (Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/19/07). And Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), supported by access advocacy group the Alliance for Community Media, has introduced legislation to rectify many of the recent backwards steps in PEG policy. Among other things, the Community Access Preservation Act would secure less-restricted funding for access centers and ensure that new state laws don’t gut the franchise agreements established by municipalities (AllianceCM.org, 10/9/09).