Local governments vote for public access TV, but that's just the start
Steve Schell
January/February 2004

Noncommercial television should address itself to the ideal of excellence, not the idea of acceptability--which is what keeps commercial television from climbing the staircase.

I think television should be the visual counterpart of the literary essay, should arouse our dreams, satisfy our hunger for beauty, take us on journeys, enable us to participate in events, present great drama and music, explore the sea and the sky and the woods and the hills.

It should be our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky's, and our Camelot. It should restate and clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle. Once in a while it does, and you get a quick glimpse of its potential.

--Author E.B. White describing public television's role in a 1967 letter submitted to the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television)

It's that second paragraph above that gets me. Television doesn't do any of that for me, and, generally, I don't have too much use for it. In fact, it has been only recently that my household began subscribing to cable TV. Before cable, I watched PBS from time to time, and the occasional network newscast - that is, until those newscasts became simply unbearable. The main reason I wanted cable was to be able to watch the local government channel, which airs things such as City and County Commission meetings, Advisory Board meetings, and the like (OK, college sports too). I know what you're thinking, but I think I should be aware of what my elected officials are doing if I'm going to remain active in community affairs, and my schedule simply won't allow me to attend those bi-weekly meetings as often as I'd like.

At a time when only six mega-corporations are owners of most of the media in this country-that's down from 50 in 1983, according to Ben Bagdikian's book, The Media Monopoly-there just isn't much substantive programming among the 60+ channels I receive on cable. I can skip dozens at a time when clicking through channels, because I already know that what those channels are broadcasting is of no interest to me.

Those government commission meetings are the only local programming available, other than local news, which has become, over the years, mostly fluff and very little information of value. A typical local newscast - and I'm not singling out Gainesville, although it applies here also - begins with a "shocker", such as a murder or police chase or something similar, and not necessarily even local, after which comes a "quick check" with the local meteorologist at the "storm center" (you'll return to the "storm center" later for the full run down). This is all followed by a couple national bits before the first commercial break. But I digress. While our local commission meetings are sometimes entertaining and sometimes informative, there's still a void that could be filled with a host of local programming that could appeal to just about every segment of this community.

A growing segment of our community is pressing for our local governments to include a channel for public access programming in their current negotiations with Cox Communications, Gainesville's local cable provider. Currently, the FCC requires cable providers to include PEG channels - Public, Educational, and Governmental. In Gainesville those channels are 8, 6, and 12, respectively. But if it desires, the local governing authority can require an additional channel for community access.

The Gainesville City Commission and the Alachua County Commission have been pursuing the possibility for some time now, and at a joint meeting in July 2003, Commissioners directed staff to prepare a report on funding and oversight of a potential public access channel. Also at that meeting, a consultant outlined the findings of a survey of interest among cable subscribers and the results showed that a majority of subscribers wanted more local information on cable television.

On Monday, January 6, 2004 the Commissions convened for another joint meeting. During the time since the last meeting, staff had issued a Request for Proposals from entities interested in providing the operational management of such a channel. Three proposals were submitted: Budd Broadcasting, local owners of Channel 53; Raquel Garcia, with Robert Sepe of Alliance for Community Media; and Ron Hebert, who runs a similar operation in the Tampa Bay area.

The agenda of the meeting called for a presentation from the Connected Community Task Force, a presentation of industry information compiled by the Telecommunications Department at UF, the staff report on Public Access, and the three proposals, followed by public comment. After the first three agenda items, County Commission Chair Mike Byerly extended a professional courtesy to Hillsborough County Commissioner Rhonda Storms, who was present and wished to address the Commissions and talk about Hillsborough's experience with Public Access.

Storms blew into town hell-bent on showing our commissioners the true evil that Public Access television is. After thanking the Commission for allowing her the courtesy to break in line, as it were, and offering the assistance of the Hillsborough staff and County Attorney (as if our own County Attorney Dave Wagner weren't capable of understanding the complexities of the law), Storms said, "I know it backwards and forwards, had all kinds of threats against me, including rape, and all kinds of horrible things for my position. I know it backwards and forwards." This was the beginning of a lengthy harangue in which Storms recounted the horrors that Hillsborough County had endured during its experience with Public Access.

Sheila Bishop stepped up to the microphone upon Storms' departure and asked the Commission to consider placing a time limit on such professional courtesies in the future, pointing out that some in the audience who had come to speak on the issue had simply given up and left. Chair Byerly admitted she had a good point.

After hearing the three presentations from those who responded to the RFP, the public was finally allowed to speak, and speak they did, overwhelmingly in favor of some form of public access. Barry Sawicki, coordinator at the Civic Media Center, told commissioners that public access television is the way that citizens can interact with one another. "There's no way for people in this community to speak to each other in a lateral way," he said. Several citizens said that they had been surprised to find, upon moving to Gainesville, that the area had no public access television. I had similar feelings when I moved here, also wondering how on earth I could be living in a college town where there was no real college radio and where students were not able to ride the buses in town unless paying full fare. We've solved the bus thing, but the radio thing is a totally different story.

Most commissioners seemed to be in favor of the general idea, although several expressed serious concerns for how to pay for it. The discussion dragged on. When County Commissioner Rodney Long finally had a chance to speak, he told the commissioners that they could work out the details later, but that they should go ahead and vote on whether to direct staff to negotiate with Cox for an additional channel for public access. Thanks to Commissioner Long, the pace quickened and a subsequent motion by City Commissioner Tony Domenich in favor of negotiating for a public access channel carried 5 to 1, with Ed Braddy voting no. A similar motion by Long was approved unanimously by the County Commission, just after midnight.

This is by no means all there is to it. The current contract with Cox expires at the end of March, and neither commission is in the mood to extend it further. In order for the community to actually see some real public access programming, the current negotiations will need to have a positive result, be approved by the commissions, and then the details of how to fund and regulate it will have to be resolved. Several commissioners mentioned that they had received a lot of communication from citizens in favor of public access, so if you are in favor and you haven't let your commissioners know, now would be a good time to do it.

While we are still fighting the FCC's recent proposals to relax media ownership rules, proposals that FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein called "potentially destructive", and we are still struggling to obtain low-power radio licenses, licenses which the FCC seems to think should belong exclusively to religious broadcasters, it's nice to know that there is still one outlet left for the public to use - television. Let's use it to it's fullest potential, lest we lose it, too.

City of Gainesville: http://www.cityofgainesville.org 352-334-5071
Alachua County: http://www.co.alachua.fl.us 352-264-6900

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