I Want My Community TV: Public Access Television Faces Threats

Public access television, or PEG as it’s called – short for public, educational and governmental-are channels available for public use. Cable companies seeking to offer their services to municipalities have had to barter with local governments: in exchange for the use of public property, cable companies have to sign video franchising deals. Municipalities use fees from the deals for public access TV services and stations.

But as we’ve all grown accustomed, the aggressive telecommunications companies, or Telcos, are never happy with the status quo. Phone corporations, elbowing their way into the video business, are seeking to change the rules. Not wanting to charter deals with every community government the way cable companies have, the Telcos, such as Verizon and AT&T, want to strip municipalities of their rights to bargain, and instead make comprehensive franchising deals with federal and state governments.

So far, the behemoths have been unsuccessful in Congress, but they’ve since turned their hungry fangs on state legislatures, many of which are offering up a supple neck and passing laws that severely alter or abandon PEG. And with the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sanctioning the blood-letting, it could only be a matter of time before more states faint.

From the other side of the castle, PEG is staving off different threats – namely a growing technological gap that pits the days of dropping off a homemade video at the local PEG station against YouTube, and a large portion of the population that doesn’t even know that public access television exists. If you just sighed, think of your local station manager.

The ‘Do-It-Yourself Station’

The electric transmission building turned PEG station in Amherst, Massachusetts was relatively quiet last Thursday when I showed up for a tour. Only four cars were in the parking lot, and one person was using the equipment to make programming – a documentary chronicling a high school marching band.

Operated as a non-profit organization, Amherst Community Television (ACTV) serves residents in four neighboring towns. Amherst’s franchise agreement with Comcast is used to fund most of the station, and residents can pay a minimal fee – $10 – to become a member.

Unlike some municipalities’ PEG channels, which are designed as play-back centers where anyone can drop off a video to be aired, ACTV is a full-production facility. There’s a stage with changeable backgrounds and chairs for a live audience. Stuck with no camera crew, a member can tape themselves and a guest in front of a single camera in what the station calls the "do-it-yourself" studio.

I was met at the front desk by Sean Kinlin, the station’s production manager, and Jim Lescault, the freshman executive director who took the post only three weeks prior. Lescault swiftly swe pt a "this showcase could be yours" arm across an aging but friendly reception area before ushering me through the rest of the station. All three of us settled at a large meeting table, a depleted Dunkin Donuts coffee box nesting in the middle.

There’s no doubting Kinlin and Lescault’s excitement about public access television. They rally back and forth, extolling its virtues. PEG stations are vital, Lescault says, because "there’s a real threat on free speech in America."

Kinlin’s serve: "Stations like this exist to democratize access [to TV]. Otherwise it’s very hard for any average person to break into the world of network or even local television."

PEG is one of the only ways citizens can directly challenge restrictions on free speech. Michael Eisenmenger, co-founder of the site SaveAccess.org, says public access TV "is the only protected form of first amendment speech in the media in existence in the US."

"Public access centers defend all of the rights of the community to come and make programming and speak on issues without the fear of censorship," Eisenmenger said.

ACTV’s free speech mission is worn on the forehead. Their website says, "ACTV welcomes all points of view including content that some may find controversial or offensive."

Lescault is equally committed: "If there’s a viewpoint [that’s aired] that you find so objectionable, you have the right to come and counter that."

Residents can do their countering by first becoming members and then taking classes at ACTV. A studio production course costs just $10, with low-income scholarships available. Kinlin says people can either drop off a video for broadcast, or make their own show in-house.

The station’s three channels are crammed. Programs on mediation, cooking and politics play on the public channel. Educational programs, such as a trivia bee, are aired on the – you guessed it, educational channel – though last week also included a local press conference on discrimination on the University of Massachusetts-Amherst women’s track team. The governmental channel is responsible for airing all of the local town meetings.

"If we miss one meeting, it’s a lot of calls," Lescault said. "It’s a very serious thing here. People are used to watching the deliberations."

But some of the programming isn’t local, or if it is, it’s being replayed from the day before.

Less enthusiastic now, Kinlin says, "There have been periods in the past when usage was much higher than it was now. I think it could be possible that a lot of people in the community don’t realize the value of what they have here."

The Media Iceberg

Lack of local interest in public access television is only the tip of the iceberg of the threats facing PEG, so we’ll go straight to the berg first.

Diving deep, Eisenmenger’s SaveAccess.org gives an adept history of PEG:

When cable TV was first introduced, the legislation required cable TV providers to negotiate local franchises with individual municipalities. Since the franchises were in effect partial monopolies, the municipalities could choose between competing providers. Most importantly, the municipality maintained control over local right-of-way (access to public areas for running cable, etc.). In exchange for access to the publicly owned right-of-way, municipalities can negotiate for fees and services from the cable provider. These fees and services are what make the Public, Educational and Governmental channels and facilities possible. In addition, a local franchise provided a mechanism for addressing local complaints (poor service) and it insured that build-out and other public interest requirements could be closely monitored. As franchises expire, the municipalities can re-negotiate (either with the same provider or another competitor) and the fees and services can be renegotiated based on real need (such as additional PEG channel capacity for instance).

Cue unsettling music that foreshadows ominous events: The Telcos, eyeing television as their next mile marker, have "determined that local franchises are just too troublesome for their business model," according to SaveAccess.org. Instead, the phone companies want a national franchise agreement, which would allow them to enter communities without negotiating with municipalities, thereby gutting any local control over channels and rights-of-way, or public spaces.

"The municipalities have a lot at stake, primarily with rights-of-way," Eisenmenger said. "When that telephone or cable company comes in and digs up the streets [and put in cable boxes], having the municipalities have control… to make sure those go in appropriate places, that the streets are cleaned up and repaved."

The Telcos tried first to tip Congress in its favor, but a national franchise bill died in the Senate in 2006, though frighteningly, the House passed the bill. Always a survivor, the phone companies have switched gears, now pursuing state video franchises – comprehensive state-wide agreements negotiated at the state level which usually circumnavigate local governments.

Already, fourteen states have bowed to the telephone companies by passing bills that effect PEG channels. A handful of other states are considering legislation, including Massachusetts, the home of ACTV, where Verizon is pushing a law that could severely hurt public access television. A coalition with dozens of members, called Keep It Local MA, is currently working "to preserve the current municipal franchising process from being preempted by the state."

Felicia Sullivan, program manager for New Media at the University of Massachusetts – Lowell, said many communities may find their programming cut by state franchise agreements.

"For small communities, chances are that when funds are being dispersed at a state level, they might not receive funds because they’ll go to large communities who will then be responsible for covering the needs of these smaller communities," Sullivan said.

In a separate court, the supposed referee, the FCC, is taking sides. In 2006, the agency made its own order to allow for a national video franchise. Several PEG advocacy groups have sued the FCC, including the Alliance for Communications Democracy and the Alliance for Community Media.

SaveAccess.org also reported in September that the agency is expected to "rule that existing cable operators can, under certain circumstances, back out of key provisions in their current franchise contracts with local governments, renegotiate lower municipal fees, and reduce the benefits they currently provide to the public."

Crossroads in Community TV

As the franchising storm rages, ACTV director Lescault has other holes to plug, including dwindling participation from community members.

"Many people don’t come here," Lescault said. "We have to find out why. Is it barriers because of language? Barriers because of location? Barriers because I have computers at home and I never really thought that I could make programming at home and have it put on the TV and cast to a wider audience?"

Kinlin, who just trained a group of young people at the studio, said the digital divide is taking its toll on PEG. "Things like the Internet and cheaper and better video cameras that people can buy, and then post videos online – so a lot of people in the past who would have come here in a second for the creative outlet it provides think they don’t need us."

Colin Rhinesmith, author of the blog Community Media in Transition, echoed Kinlin’s fears in a recent post: "As YouTube and other commercial video-sharing platforms grow in popularity, many authorities at the local, state and national levels are beginning to question the need for funding public access television in the digital age. As a result, these two spaces – virtual and physical – are being portrayed as separate and unequal."

Sullivan, of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, said PEG can sometimes struggle to find media makers and viewers because they "deal primarily with niche programming and with distinctive groups of people."

"The audiences are fragmented," Sullivan said. "Sometimes PEG access centers have limited staff or they lack the knowledge to really promote the centers."

But to criticisms that PEG is fleeting, Sullivan says, "I think PEG gets discounted as nobody’s watching, but I think that’s wrong. There is very important programming going on that members of the community see. I just think it’s hard to capture that."

Both Kinlin and Lescault are optimistic about PEG’s future, though they’re clear about the struggle ahead. ACTV is taking steps to get more technologically savvy and, in Kinlin’s words, "stay relevant to the community," by digitizing their programming and offering shows online. The station is stepping up efforts to network with nearby campuses and coordinate programming with other PEG stations.

And at a time when the FCC is pushing hard to change media ownership rules, resulting in more media in the hands of the few, Lescault is adamant about why public access TV should be protected.

"What I need people to understand is, you can’t afford to lose us," Lescault said. "If you lose us up here, Amherst has no way of knowing what’s going on in its own community. I don’t think people think of it that way."

Lescault pulled out before-and-after pictures of the ACTV building, comparing concrete and an exposed boiler to a gleaming production studio.

"I am truly excited," he said. "It is fertile, in every aspect. It’s endless what we could be doing here. Hopefully in a year you’ll come back and say, ‘Whoa, I couldn’t find a parking space.’"

Megan Tady is a National Political Reporter for In These Times and a freelance journalist based in Western Massachusetts.