Public Access Television: What's next?
"I would call it the extension of transnational, corporate tyranny. These are tyrannical, totalitarian institutions, mega corporations. They are huge command economies, run from the top, relatively unaccountable, and interlinked in various ways. Their first interest is profit-but much broader than that, it's to construct an audience of a particular type. One that is addicted to a certain lifestyle with artificial wants. An audience atomized, separated from one another, fragmented enough so that they don't enter the political arena and disturb the powerful. It's completely natural."
--Noam Chomsky on global media power
Television is a dirty word in activist circles. Understandable when contemplating the barrage of trash that can spew from that little screen inside your house. Unfortunately killing your television is an impractical solution. TV can use its powers for good: distributing critical life saving information during natural disasters or presidential elections. Public Access Television can serve a community by allowing individuals to share their art, ideas and creativity in a non-commercial setting. For better or for worse, television is the central medium that disseminates culture or human expression to America. If democracy is to have a chance on the idiot box, supporting public access television is a great way to get there.
Commercial Media Today
There was a time in human history when stories told by the elders around a campfire were how we taught each other to live. Now we have Paris Hilton, American Idol's Simon, Fox News, and Disney Studios as arbiters of culture... a true horror story. Commercial media monsters like Clear Channel offer women breast augmentation surgery for writing a "winning" essay on why they want big boobs. At the same time the networks are rejecting commercials from national not for profit organizations and churches for being too controversial like the MoveOn.Org Super bowl spots and the Church of Christ welcome commercials. With Michael Powell, son of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, as chair of the Federal Communications Commission, deregulation has allowed for one global media giant to potentially control the entire print, television, and radio in more and more markets across the country. And in a twisted example of giving back to parents for the opportunities they can provide us, Powell made a cool 4 million for his dad when the AOL Time Warner deal went through. Although he has tried to tackle wardrobe malfunctions, Howard Stern, and NFL smut, his personal connections to the current administration and their support for big business make him a poor representative of the people in media.
Closer to home, Cox Communications, our local cable provider, has discontinued the Jacksonville PBS channel while two new military channels have been added to the line up and cable rates have gone up 75 cents. This increase has happened notwithstanding promises from Cox last year during the franchise agreements between the city and county on the cable contract that the reason they could not pay for public access television was because they wanted to keep rates steady or reduce them. This was the same argument used by Bruce Brashear and the Connected Community Task Force when they chose to support bringing public access TV back to Channel 8, but without a dime of money to run the station. Public access television advocates were requesting a nominal 10 to 50 cent increase on the monthly cable bill to guarantee a minimal staff handling public access television operations. This was in response to the over 90% of cable subscribers requesting more local coverage of sports, events, and news, and the over 74% who indicated they would be willing to pay for it. These statistics came from independent consultant Rice Williams and Associates, hired by the county to review this issue. A 2/27/05 article in the Gainesville Sun indicates Cox has filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission "to free it from rules limiting rates it can charge for basic cable." This while in the same Rice Williams report, 44% of Cox customers "did not feel they received a good value...and of those offering a reason, the vast majority faulted the cost of monthly service." Although Cox offered $250,000 for equipment to house the public access channel during the franchise negotiations, no operational funding for staff to actually run the equipment was secured and monies can only be released under various stipulations. In many Cox communities such as nearly every city in Rhode Island, Cox pays for equipment and staff operations to ensure the channel survives the vicissitudes of municipal budget cycles and private fundraising droughts. According to Southeastern Alliance for Community Media board member and national PEG consultant Bob Sepe, "no public access TV channel in the country can exist without direct funding from the franchise authority. Typically such funds are earmarked from fees levied on cable services."
Public Access TV comes back to town
Democracy in media has always been an elusive aspiration. But the cable industry made promises in the early 1970's when promoting cable to the public, that in exchange for utilizing the public rights of ways to lay their cables, they would devote channels to the community, where we could talk to each other about our perspectives, stories and interests in a non-commercial setting, thus public, education and governmental or PEG channels were born. However as FCC deregulation accelerated during the Reagan years, PEG channels were no longer guaranteed to a community. Residents are now required to lobby their local leaders during franchise agreement renewals with the local cable provider to request PEG channel allocation. Regardless of greater challenges in bringing public access TV to a creative community, PATV television stations are thriving all over the country--and world. The cable operator pays for the channel's operations and equipment, voluntarily in Canada and other countries, in exchange for using the city streets to do business. Any resident who can abide by city and county ordinances on decency can use the channel to share his or her stories with the community. Most people are familiar with programs like "Wayne's World" but public access television stations have also won distinguished media awards, broken international news stories, and some PATV stations air their own documentaries and soap operas.
Our community has much to celebrate when it comes to PATV, because over a year ago, in the very early hours of January 7th, 2005, after hours and hours of testimony in a packed county auditorium, public access television advocates won back a new community channel. Gainesville enjoyed public access television some ten years ago but it was lost in the previous franchise agreements. Each channel represents at least one million dollars of annual infomercial revenue to the cable company, therefore they are not so keen on giving them up and work hard to get them back.
What was won back that night was a promise by the Board of City and County Commissioners, that they would honor the request of their constituency to bring back public access TV. Unfortunately the only revenue allocation negotiated successfully by staff for the channel was for equipment. So it is that nearly two years have gone by since the first meeting to address the need for public access television held at the Civic Media Center, and the community is still waiting for its public access television channel. In the past year however, Public Access Television of North Central Florida (PATV/NCF), a non-profit formed at the urging of our elected officials, has held several benefit shows and events for public access TV awareness in the community. Supporters like Satchel's Pizza, Gyro Plus, the University Club, TGI Fridays, Cultural Arts Coalition, Civic Media Center, Common Grounds, Ken and Linda McGurn, and innumerable local artists and musicians have helped PATV enthusiasts reach out to the community to inform them that public access TV is coming back.
This journey has not been without intense challenges. Can you imagine a bunch of artists and creative types trying to organize and do business with local government and a multi-million dollar cable monopoly in order to earn a chance to share their art and opinions on TV? None of the volunteers who helped win the channel back have received any compensation, and all have had to find time in between school, jobs, and families to encourage involvement and awareness about this issue. Convincing activists and non-profit directors of the merit of a TV channel to reach over 60,000 plus new ears, eyes, and hearts is also a daunting task. Challenges in finding local funding often pit non-profits against each other in competition for limited dollars. But if we choose to heed the signs around us, it is clear that the First Amendment is under attack and that ought to frighten us enough to join hands and help save it through creative expression of local voices in media.
Presenting the issue of public access television is not in the interests of commercial media because there is a perceived threat of competition and criticism. Therefore educating others on what is happening now on this issue in our own community is mostly possible thanks to a few alternative media print publications like the Gainesville Iguana and Satellite magazine that we are fortunate to have in Alachua County. Public access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is in great danger. Contemplate if you will the closing of all three public libraries in John Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas, California. Libraries named after Steinbeck and Cesar Chavez in a city of over 150,000--about the size of Gainesville--are permanently closing due to a lack of tax revenue.
The poor and disadvantaged communities that need the access to resources and services the most in order to improve their quality of life, are in the greatest jeopardy. Public Access Television is a voice for the voiceless in our community. It is a way to demystify media for individuals and youth. A PATV studio center in town can show the community how to use modern technology to create and learn and grow. Opportunities like that for residents can help tackle the digital divide that separates those who can afford to buy a computer and video camera from those who cannot but will still need the same kind of skills to succeed in a technology-based work environment. For all types of producers interested in sharing spoken word or art, PATV is also a way to reach the public at a time when even posting an informational flyer can be illegal. The world is changing rapidly and if we want a chance to talk about and understand what is happening around us we need venues in the public where we can talk to each other about what's going on. The isolation encouraged in cellphone and BlackBerry technology toys means people, especially students walking around campus, are communicating only in their own homogenous circles and shutting out the diverse people and possibilities around them. It is media big business nowadays to tour around college campuses promoting commercial TV shows like the "Real World" and recent "Reality Bar Crawl" hosted by a J-School graduate that led to the attempted rape of a 20 year old co-ed by a fraternity member. Debates are being manufactured onstage by paid performer-specialists traveling to universities to talk about pornography. Yet the true campus pulse of students questioning reality in their studies receives no media attention. We are so much more than that. Be part of creating a dynamic local video stage for the community, a proud legacy for all ages to share for years to come.
Although draft proposals have been sent out to interested operating groups there is still no confirmation that the customary pre-bid conference to ask questions about the PATV bid process will proceed, nor when the true deadline for proposals will be. Get involved in making sure a transparent PATV process will take Gainesville to a new exciting level of creative community excellence. Find out what is happening about the return of PATV by emailing or calling your local elected officials at email@example.com #334-5000, and firstname.lastname@example.org #374-5226, and help contribute to getting the word out about a new show in town, by and for the community.
Raquel Garcia is an independent media producer and graduate student with a Masters Degree in Mass Communications from the University of Florida's Documentary Institute. She is a member of the collective, Public Access Television of North Central Florida, whose mission it is to share awareness with the community about the PATV process currently underway, and to encourage qualified non-profits to bid for channel management in the spirit of a true people's channel. email@example.com.
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