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Beyond Broadcast: Future of Public Access TV

bbcast.jpg(On Saturday, Feb. 24, at the Beyond Broadcast conference in Cambridge, Mass., I’m helping to put together a workshop about the future of public-access television — the channels on local cable systems that carry locally generated programming, generally by non-professionals. Jason Crow, access coordinator at Cambridge Community Television, is co-leader of the workshop.

I think it’s time to phase out public-access TV and replace it with something more attuned to the Internet Age, and I wrote a blog posting to that effect. Jason has his doubts about this, to put it mildly, and has interjected some comments in my posting.

See it below (and on the Beyond Broadcast site). We hope it will help spark a much broader conversation this weekend.)

Day and night across America, cable television systems devote one of their channels to programming known as “Public Access” — shows created by people in the communities the cable companies serve.

The programs range from interesting and useful to dull and dreadful. That’s what you’d expect from material created by people who aren’t media professionals. (Which is not to say that the pros create only great things themselves, of course.)

Good to bad to ugly, public access cable TV has given voice to people who had something to say. Using the cable companies’ production facilities and distribution, these folks have been able to make themselves heard by anyone who cared to watch and listen. Public access, by almost any standard, has been a valuable addition to the local media scene.

Valuable, but outdated: It’s time to phase out public access — but in a way that brings us even better publicly created news and entertainment.

The cable companies don’t like it. They have to spend money to provide it, dollars they’re much rather send to their bottom lines and shareholders. It costs bandwidth they’d rather use for other programming.

The telephone companies trying to enter the business like it even less. They have been working in Washington — lobbying for legislation and revised FCC regulations — and in state capitals for permission to abandon many of their public interest obligations.

When cable systems were essentially the only game in town for video news and entertainment, their desires carried less weight against the public-interest value of public access. But in the age the Internet and more competitive media, the balance has shifted.

I’m not suggesting that we let the cable companies simply walk away from their community obligations. But there’s a fine way to give them relief from the burden of public access while increasing the number of public voices on matters of community interest.

Let’s make a deal with them, as follows:

1. In five years, cable systems will be free to abandon public access programming in every way. They won’t have to provide production facilities or channels.

Wow, what you’re suggesting is a big giveaway to the cable and telephone companies. Remember, cable companies pay rent for use of public rights of way. At its core, public access TV is a result of a return on the use of public land. According to the National Cable and Telecom Association, cable companies pay 2.8 billion per year in franchise fees – rent for use of public land. These franchises pay the rent for hundreds of public access media center buildings, grant money for equipment, require universal buildout and provide analog channel and digital spectrum allocation.

Should we really give back those facilities and anywhere from 1-9 channels in over 1,000 communities across the United States? In addition there are dozens of institutional networks already operating, many interconnected, many with dark fiber we could harness as bandwidth. You are suggesting giving back the one of the largest public interest networks in the world, built on the ideals of free speech and civic participation.

2. In the meantime, they will use those production facilities and public-access personnel — who’ll need some retraining — to help members of the community learn modern media production techniques. Those techniques will focus on a Web model of content, not a broadcast model.

I propose a “United Stations” movement that includes networking all of the stations into one solid network. There are many implications to this:
a. The largest cable network in the world;
b. Sharing of resources – curriculum, best practices;
c. Single marketing entity – dissolve the negative stereotypes;
d. Share programming (there is tons of good stuff out there).

We need to combine efforts for a net-based, many-to-many media with cable, one-to-many playback– more a distribution model, with user submissions, voting, feedback, comments and the best get played on the channels.

Let’s look at the various constituencies of public access, and see who gets what under such a deal.

Cable companies: Over time, they get out of an obligation they meet grudgingly in most cases.

Public access employees: They effectively get a five-year employment guarantee, plus retraining in a field that is in many ways the future of media.

The public (the most important constituency): We get a vast array of new programming of all kinds, from a cadre of newly trained citizen media creators. Maybe cable systems will want to put some of it on their channels, or maybe not. But the Web makes it unimportant whether they do or not.

What about those people who don’t have access to broadband?

Keep in mind that at least some public-access operations are already doing such things. For example, Cambridge (Mass.) Community Television offers a variety of classes with a distinctly Web-ish tint in many cases. Consider the session entitled “ZIP DOCS: 021XX” — the purpose of which is to “map the Cambridge community with video” using such tools as Google maps as well as standard video techniques. Cool stuff, and a major part of the future.

We’ve offered podcasting and videoblogging classes in the past as well. We suggest our community members tag their content “cctvcambridge” in YouTube and Blip for redistribution on our drupal-based web community. I would suggest taking a look at the other progressive institutions around the US. For instance, DeProduction manages Denver Open Media, a public access tv web community that allows user to upload video, rank it, comment on it and get it on the cable channels.

We need much, much more of this.

Public access television was a good answer for its time. But the era when it was so needed is coming to a close.

Let’s create a legion of citizen media people who do solid, honorable work for the medium of the future: the Net.

Let’s not abandon 30 years of building infrastructure and creating human connections with municipal leaders. We don’t have to reinvent the system, just adapt it to new technologies. There are great citizen journalists on the web like Lisa Williams who benefit from her Selectmen meeting being broadcast on her Government Access channel. She posts excerpts to her placeblog via YouTube. Let’s follow this example and work together to create a United Stations movement.

13 Comments on “Beyond Broadcast: Future of Public Access TV”

  1. #1 Working Pathways » What’s YouTube if Not Public Access?
    on Feb 21st, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    […] weekend, Dan Gillmor is doing a workshop on how to make public-access TV relevant. His thoughts echo those I wrote about in, “Add Cable Public Access to the Endangered Species […]

  2. #2 Michael Wood-Lewis
    on Feb 21st, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    A difference to consider… public access provides local programming that reaches a local audience. YouTube and its ilk mostly do not.

    I’m always surprised by the number of comments I get around town when I’m on public access, e.g., I used to sit on the Public Works Commission in Burlington, VT. These folks saw that program because it was one of a few dozen options on the dial when they were channel surfing. On the other hand, what are the odds they would have tuned into that local commission meeting online if they were just poking around the web?

    Front Porch Forum is finding a groundswell of interest in local. I like Jason’s closing statement:

    “Let’s not abandon 30 years of building infrastructure and creating human connections with municipal leaders. We don’t have to reinvent the system, just adapt it to new technologies.”

  3. #3 Roger
    on Feb 21st, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    An interesting discussion on an interesting topic. It brings to mind the debate over FCC regulations with regards to media ownership and another potential casualty of that debate–local media. Due to the currently outdated structure of the FCC regulations, new reforms that are being proposed could cut those local stations off from their parent companies, which could have the unintended effect of starving them of revenue and driving them off the air entirely. The rules in place right now were written and served in a time before alternatives such as the internet or the plethora of other mediums available now, and local channels simply can’t compete in that environment on their own. Still, they provide vital services–coverage of local elections, local issues, local news, even seemingly trivial things like updates on snow closures and traffic delays that we all take for granted.

    In the spirit of disclosure, I’d add that I consult for the NAB, but that in no way changes the facts above.

  4. #4 Ben Sheldon
    on Feb 21st, 2007 at 1:50 pm

    I do not understand why the community/citizen media movement should completely abandon a distribution medium as important and influential as television. I’m assuming that the cable corporations are more clever than we are, and I don’t see them dumping television in full-favor of the internet anytime soon.

    On a practical matter, how do you propose in phasing out franchise television? On a state or federal policy level? That’s no better than what the cable corporations are lobbying for.

    Cable Access Television has, over the past 30 years, been one of the most amazing examples of grassroots politics and localism. Maybe this is because small-town city councilors like seeing themselves on TV, but the fact that thousands of small towns and cities have independently negotiated for what they believe best serves their community is fantastic. To now proclaim that they can’t determine what is in their community’s best interest does them a great disservice.

    If we believe that access to new media technologies is important, it should be our role to help *evolve* those stations and media centers that agree and try to *persuade* those that don’t.

  5. #5 Seth Finkelstein
    on Feb 21st, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    Ben – the problem is that the “citizen media movement” is *institutionally* tied into serving the interests of Big Corporate Media, via promoting digital-sharecropping and unpaid freelancing as the highest form of civic virtue. This is not a matter of bad people – it’s a matter of *where* *the* *money* *is* (and its corollary, attention).

    So you’ll see endless proposals of the form: “Let’s give Big Corporate Media this sweetheart deal, because It’s A New Era and THE INTERNET”.

    Because that will get echo by media interests, and the opposite … won’t.

    Second time – it’s not about any particular person. It’s a systems effect.

  6. #6 Jason Crow
    on Feb 22nd, 2007 at 9:58 am

    To add to undercurrent of this discussion: the citizen journalism-blogger movement is not opposition to public access, it’s just moved faster technologically than most TV stations have been able to adapt. Public Access centers will inevitably catch up with Internet distribution technology because the ideology, facilities and training programs already exist to support this transition.

    This is not a bloggers v. television producers, Internet v. cable, analog v. digital discussion. We have the same endgame in mind (the endgame being an informed and engaged society).

    I prefer an empathetic stance – we, the alternative press – must stick together (sound the trumpets, I hear a “divided house” speech coming on).

  7. #7 Pie and Coffee » Looking back at Beyond Broadcast
    on Feb 23rd, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    […] Holmes Wilson/Dan Gillmor/drinking with WGBH: I don’t think Holmes will be there this year, but Dan Gillmor is back and talking about the future of public access TV, a subject close to my heart. He’s blogged some of his thoughts here. […]

  8. #8 michael
    on Feb 26th, 2007 at 6:17 am

    Every emerging communications technology has had some form of public set-aside – some more successful than others. PBS/NPR for broadcast TV and radio, college stations for the original FM spectrum allocations, nonprofit and educational channels for DBS systems, and of course public, educational and governmental (PEG) access channels for cable TV. It’s crucial that everytime we, as a society, create avenues for commercial communication that we also set-aside a portion for non-commercial and public interest uses. Diverting PEG resources to other media, as Dan suggests, would eliminate what few green spaces exist in a medium that occupies the attention of many families eight or more hours a day.

    Keep in mind that PEG, like LPFM can be the most local of local media – narrowcasting to a small segment of the community, often in their own language. It can also follow broadcast models and there are many examples of national news and information programs that originate from PEG (Democracy Now, Gay USA, etc). In terms of diversity, more hours of PEG TV are produced by minority communities than by all the commercial networks – combined. So, if we want to talk seriously about the need for localism and diversity in media production – how could we ever consider eliminating PEG?

    The problem with PEG is that it is only an option for cities to negotiate for – not a mandate. As a result PEG is uneven around the country in terms of penetration, models of operations, number of channels and facility capacity. In the best case scenarios, PEG is a vibrant and essential part of the local community, serving many functions, from town meetings to varied course offerings – including in new technologies. Worst case scenarios are cities with only channels run by the cable companies themselves – and who make it as difficult as possible for members of the public to participate. This explains why there are such differing perceptions of PEG.

    Rather than dumping PEG as Dan suggests, our efforts should be directed toward leveraging and strengthening these resources. Many PEG centers have been allied with the CTC movement since the beginning – as well as public libraries. There’s no shortage of the types of innovations Dan is looking for – in many cities what he proposes is already happening and members of the public are web-casting and cable-casting their videos

    Also, there really is no conflict between online video and existing models for PEG, in fact for those of us working in PEG – we see opportunities, not competition. And many finding success online, credit PEG with helping them get there (see:


  9. #9 Felicia
    on Feb 26th, 2007 at 8:49 am

    It seem to me we should looking for more ways to create public funding and public infrastructure for all sorts of media and communicaitons systems. Public access tv. ciiizen journalism, community radio, public television, independent press, public libraries, and a whole host of public communication and information should be advocated for and maintained. And it would seem that we should be seeking compensation not just in the cable industry, but should be asking the telcos, satellite providers, cell phone companies, media companies for fair payment for their use of public lands, air, spectrum, space and any host of other public resources being use to generate private gains.

  10. #10 Mike Wassenaar
    on Feb 26th, 2007 at 11:46 am

    A good discussion. There’s lots to say here, but I’ll add only one thing that community media centers add that’s lost in the debate: Economic value to local communities.

    One real example: In Saint Paul, a community of 280,000 people, our center does video training and low-cost (or no-cost) equipment loans to the entire community (it’s sort of a like a library…are we to get rid of them as well?).

    The commercial value of the equipment loans alone is over $1m a year in my community. That doesn’t include the $ value of training, and other services to non-profits and community groups (this includes multiple types of production and distribution, including dvd, web, cable and broadcast).

    GoogleVideo, YouTube, and other internet distribution vehicles don’t do that in my community. They provide a valuable distribution (and collaboration) medium, but they can’t replace a CMC.

    Community Media Centers can increase educational training and build creative and economic value. Multiply out the value across U-S communities to look at the hidden benefit of access television, and don’t just concentrate on the channels and distribution.

    One other note: I’ve been training citizen journalists for 15 years in the community radio and television movements. It’s kind of funny to hear people talk about training the public to do journalism as a new thing.

  11. #11 Seth Finkelstein
    on Feb 26th, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    It’s very important to realize that there’s two different senses of the word “public” in play:

    1) Non-market, not business, value other than the profit motive, civic society.

    2) The suckers, the chumps, the mass resource to be exploited.

    Think of the saying “There is a difference between the public interest [#1] and what interests the public [#2]”. You can hear the sense-shift there.

    Much of the New Media rhetoric is actually meaning #2, but is engineered to sound like meaning #1, and this can be very confusing.

  12. #12 Michael Maranda
    on Feb 27th, 2007 at 12:05 am

    We certainly need capacity for multi-modal public and community media. We should be birthing for the next generation a hybrid Community Media and Technology Center… places of production in multiple media for diverse means of dissemination. CTC 2.0 should be integral to the United Stations concept.

    And we can take it further… these can integrate with a new approach to community development and function as active centers of community mapping. The content we are producing is often a distilled map or conveys the community capacity for self-mapping. We need better mechanisms for sharing our maps.

  13. #13 Community Media in Transition » Blog Archive » The Role of the Center in Community Media Practice
    on Nov 4th, 2007 at 9:28 pm

    […] that YouTube eliminates the need for public access television in the digital age and the second, from Dan Gillmor, sounds quite […]