Public access – The idea, the potential, the stories

Who tells the stories of a culture really governs human behavior. It used to be the parent, the school, the church, the community. Now it’s a handful of global conglomerates that have nothing to tell,  but a great deal to sell

In these few words journalist George Gerbner artfully summed up the vision of public access television.   His was a vision shared by many who have played a role in realizing that mission over the past four decades. The very idea of public access spoke to early advocates’ commitment to the social potential of cable television.

The pre-history of public access goes back to the late 1960’s, a time when cable usually meant a system that delivered broadcast television to communities beyond the reach of the broadcast signal. In 1969 the FCC ruled that “no CATV system having 3,500 or more subscribers shall carry the signal of any television broadcast station unless the system also operates to a significant extent as a local outlet by cablecasting and has available facilities for local production and presentation of programs other than automated services.” Though that rule was rescinded two years later, the idea of local programming endured in ensuing FCC rule making.

The original premises on which early decisions about cable rest underlie most of the tensions that have now erupted. First is the implicit assumption that the spectrum belongs to the people and that the FCC is responsible for regulating the people’s radio waves as a common carrier. (I remember my naïve dark ages discovery that my revolutionary microwave oven was authorized by the FCC.)

Also informing early FCC action is the fact that cable television, unlike phone, gas and electricity, is not an essential service. Thus policy-makers concluded that the for-profit cable operators should be required to provide benefits to the local communities in which they were laying their cables. In a breakthrough ruling the FCC mandated that “beginning in 1972, new cable systems [and after 1977, all cable systems] in the 100 television markets be required to provide channels for government, for educational purposes, and more importantly, for public access.

These public access channels were grouped as “PEG” channels while public access was interpreted to include the presumption that the corporate franchisee would support equipment and airtime for basically unlimited access. And therein lay some early tests of the concept of free speech….

The first public access community access television launched in 1968 in Dale City Virginia; in 1970 Stoughton, Wisconsin followed with WSTO TV. On the national scene, Fred Friendly, head of the Cable TV and Cable Commission, recommended a leased-access plan for public use that was later abandoned. A key figure at this juncture was filmmaker George Stoney about whom local filmmaker Mike Hazard has produced an informative and inspiring documentary. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZowiCZKzvo)

Public access advocates may have underestimated the ensuing conflicts. Prospering access agencies focused on assuring channel access, building a local volunteer board, good programming and audience development.   At the same time many community local cable owners struggled to keep the tower operating – at least for the Sunday football game.

Somewhat in the background, a cataclysmic change inside the Beltway changed the rules. In 1979 the Supreme Court struck down the FCC public access rule, declaring that the FCC had no authority to mandate access. The Court rejected the common carrier argument, ruling instead that cable companies were private persons under the law and that public access requirements were a burden on their conglomerates’ free speech rights.

The Court ruled that the right to regulate cable rests with the U.S. Congress – the quiet beginning a still unfolding narrative….

In spite of broad support for PEG from the access advocacy community, Congress exercised its authority by passing the Cable Communications Act of 1984. Public access took a blow with passage of the 1984 Cable Franchise Act, which declared that “a franchising authority may require channel capacity for pubic, education or government use. This restrictive measure was mitigated in part by the Cable Communications Act of 1984 which barred cable operators from exercising editorial control over content of programs carried on PEG channels; the legislation also indemnified cable operators from liability for the content.

In the early days of public access, corporate interests that coveted the cable channels were willing and able to pay the price, while city authorities that exercised authority over the franchise were able to make demands on franchisees. Mature public access cable systems built studios, hired staff, trained volunteer crews and established their unique role. Advocacy, good government, community action, cultural groups, academic institutions and other public interest groups took advantage of the opportunities to tell their stories and to engage the public.

Over time, the seeds of media deregulation, sowed in the 1990’s, bore bitter fruit in the new century as corporate interests in control of the spectrum began to impinge on public access. With an ever-expanding range of media options – coupled with intense pressure at the federal level, public access channels became increasingly vulnerable to city officials’ willingness to capitulate to conglomerates. Opinions differ on the basic question of whether new technologies will inevitably render public access obsolete or if public access is the vehicle to expand local production and engage more individuals and institutions in the democratic process.

With the passage of time public access has assumed a wide range of profiles. Local development is dependent on the engagement of the public and the inclination of local officials to recognize and support public access in franchise agreements. In the Twin Cities area a number of municipalities and groups of cities have issued franchises that include relatively substantial PEG support.

Statewide the profile of public access development is uneven, heavily dependent on local political realities. As of 2015 these public access television channels are extant in Minnesota: (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=List_of_public-access_TV_stations_in_the_United_States_(Louisiana–Montana)&action=edit&section=6)

The Twin Cities boasts of a unique manifestation of collaborative efforts among advocates, local government and independent franchising authorities. Metro Cable Network Channel 6 is a must-carry on each of the local cable systems – prospective users have yet to capitalize on the potential.

As the politics of media regulation, including rules governing public access, garner headlines, it is important to note the ways in which individuals and organizations that hold to the “idea” of access are adapting and adopting enhancing technologies. PEG organizations are maximizing the potential of cable to distribute and repurpose in creative new ways. Collaborative partnerships are forging to achieve common goals. Access systems are experimenting, retooling, reimagining their tools, but not their role as the medium for an informed and engaged demography.

Those pioneers who pursued the idea of public access, and persisted to protect the people’s rights to speak and to know, have stories to tell – of triumphs, of wars with conglomerates with “a great deal to sell”, of technology that has erupted with lightning speed and of their efforts to give voice to those who have stories to tell.

Bloodied but unbowed, these hardy folks will soon gather locally to recall their stories. Volunteers are organizing an informal reunion set for Sunday, September 27, Noon – 3:00 at the Northeast home of the Minneapolis Television Network in the Thorp Building, 820 18th Avenue NE., Minneapolis, MN. The idea is to share stories and to affirm the original commitment to a vision. The story of public access television is a relatively short story in which technology and democracy have come to crossroads at many junctures. The event is open to anyone who has a story to tell, a memory, a plan, or just a commitment to the idea of public access television, the vision of a media in the hands of those who have something to say, not just something to sell.

Contact Larry Johnson, larryjvfp@gmail.com or 612-747-3904.

 

 

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