Save Access TV

Save Access TV

For three decades public access TV has provided thousands of communities around the nation with a place where ordinary people can make and air media that matters to them. It’s estimated that over 1.2 million people volunteer on a regular basis at public access TV stations. They make programming on every imaginable subject, from cultural issues to self-help programming for immigrants. From targeted programming for youth, for seniors, for women, for the disabled, to faith based programs and televised psychics. Today in America public access TV is one of the richest ‘marketplaces of ideas’ in the nation – but this under immediate threat from three Bills now pending in Washington.

If passed “The Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act” (S.1504) – proposed by Senators Ensign (R-Nevada) and McCain (R-Arizona), and Senate Bill S.1349 and House Bill H.R.3146 – known together as the “Video Choice Act of 2005”, could end or severely limit the operation of public, educational and governmental access TV (PEG TV) nationwide.

Anthony Riddle, the Executive Director of The Alliance for Community Media - a Washington based national organization representing access TV, says this is the most serious crisis facing access TV in its thirty-year history. Riddle describes these Bills as a “national video disenfranchisement act” that will “undo years of progress in connecting the people of our communities to important local institutions and services.”

The phone companies are pushing this legislation because they want to get into the business of providing ‘video service’. With the introduction of broadband technology they seek to expand on offering customers ‘voice’ and ‘data’ service and provide ‘triple play’ – which means ‘voice’, ‘data’ and ‘video’. However the phone companies don’t want to play by the same rules that cable TV companies now play by.

The central issue is that the phone companies don’t want to negotiate local ‘franchises’ with the communities they serve. ‘Franchises’ are agreements between local governments and cable TV companies. Franchises lay out the rules for how a company can operate in a local community. And they require that the cable company give something back to that community for doing business there. At the heart of a franchise is ‘rent’ for use of the ‘public rights of way’. This means that in exchange for using the publicly owned infrastructure – such as running cables under public streets - a cable TV company must pay rent to the community. A part of this rent is providing channel space on the cable system for access TV. And providing funding for facilities, equipment and staff so access TV stations can operate.

Most people welcome the phone companies’ entrance into triple play video service, but argue that they should operate with local franchises in the same way that cable TV companies always have.

All these Bills would end local franchising and create a statewide or a federal franchise. Critics say this would have many repercussions. Including an end of local control of the media and of local accountability by video service companies.

In a worst case scenario video service providing companies would be able to redline communities they don’t want to serve. These could be low-income communities, low-density rural communities, or even areas with a high-density of seniors. Whole communities could be left out of the communications ‘loop’.

These Bills would strip communities nationwide of valuable media about local governmental issues, and educational programming for schools, colleges and libraries.

With no local franchises in operation video service companies wouldn’t have to talk to local communities about the services they provide, the prices they charge, how they respond to customer complaints, or about safety or engineering.

If passed these Bills would strike a blow against freedom the speech.

For example Manhattan’s public access TV station – Manhattan Neighborhood Network – supports diverse and many-voiced media making activities including; The Youth Channel – where youth make programs about issues that matter to them; Picture the Homeless’ Video Workshop – where homeless New Yorkers advocate on their own behalf; and the Chinese Staff and Worker’s Video Workshop - where disenfranchised immigrant workers can have a voice. These programs, and the many like them at access centers around the country, are an essential part of the public discourse and of advocacy for a more just and equitable society. Without access TV these voices will not be heard.

Access TV also provides essential distribution channels for independent programs nationally. The National Youth Media Access Project links youth media making and distribution at sites in many states, and access TV brings Pacifica’s Democracy Now! to a national audience in the millions.

Senator Ensign claims that the “The Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act” (S.1504) will create more “choices for consumers” by freeing companies of cumbersome regulation. But case after case has shown that telecommunication de-regulation leads to market monopolies by fewer and fewer companies. And absent within his doublespeak is acknowledgment that each year franchise monies support the production and airing of thousands of hours of diverse non-commercial programming for all Americans. Ensign’s focus on ‘companies’ and ‘consumers’ overlooks the role public access and other PEG access TV stations play in informing, educating and allowing speech by all ‘citizens’.

Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of a democratic society, and public access TV is a place where day after day thousands of people exercise this First Amendment right.

Critics of these Bills have noted that Ensign/McCain’s S.1504 is so drastic it could dismantle existing franchises and literally end PEG TV on the day it’s enacted. Others speculate that it may be a ‘stalking horse’ or ‘marker’ Bill which is unlikely to pass, but meanwhile pushes the debate far to the right so that the other only slightly less damaging Bills can pass in its wake.

Around the country local opposition has been rising to these Bills. The United States Conference on Mayors has come out in opposition to them, as has The National League of Cities, and the National Association of Telecommunication Officers and Advisors. Approximately twenty cities around the nation have proposed or passed local resolutions in opposition to them. The Alliance for Community Media has called for people nationwide to call or write their elected representatives to voice opposition to these Bills. And people should contact their local access centers to find out what efforts are taking place locally to ensure the future of access TV.

No one knows when these Bills will be voted on. As of early October Ensign/McCain’s S.1504 and the “Video Choice Act of 2005” have been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Insiders speculate that because of current focus on the Supreme Court and Hurricane Katrina these Bills might not be voted on until late in the year or until early in 2006. However critics also warn that attempts could be made to quietly pass them before then.

Everyone agrees that if community TV is to survive PEG advocates will have to be active in opposing these Bills, and be vigilant about other damaging legislation in the future.

Websites by the Alliance for Community Media (www.alliancecm.org) and the Free Press (www.freepress.net) offer more information about this issue as well as state-by-state coverage of pending anti-access legislation. In addition access TV centers such as Chicago (CAN-TV) www.cantv.org, New York (MNN) www.mnn.org, and Portland (PCM TV) www.pcmtv.org offer useful additional resources on their websites.

Lyell Davies
Independent Community Media Consultant