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Valuable, but outdated: It’s time to phase out public access — but in a way that brings us even better publicly created news and entertainment.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