Sunday, April 19, 2015

200.7 - Celebrating the 200th episode with a brief history of public access TV

Celebrating the 200th episode with a brief history of public access TV

For the rest of the show, I want to talk about something different. I said earlier that this is the 200th episode of Left Side of the Aisle; it's also our fourth anniversary: It was almost exactly four years ago today that we did this for the first time. So what I want to talk about is what made this possible: public access Television

You're watching me on TV right now (unless you're watching on YouTube). Yes, it’s TV - but it's special. It's public access TV - also called cable access television, community access television, and community television. It's also called PEG, for the channels you often see on public access: one each for public, education, and government.

Whatever you call it, public access TV involves providing equipment, training, and airtime so members of the general public can produce own programs and deliver them to the audience of that local cable TV system.

And potentially far beyond: This show is regularly seen, to my knowledge, on four cable systems covering more than a dozen communities with a combined subscriber base likely in excess of 50,000. So potentially, hypothetically, this show could be seen in 50,000 households. Just me, just an ordinary schlub - how did Eric Burden describe himself in that song? "An overfed, long-haired, leaping gnome." And there could potentially be thousands of people hearing what I have to say.

It's public access TV which makes that possible.

So what I want to do right now is to give a brief history of how we came to where we are. I'll note here once for all that public access TV exists in several countries other than the US, but it's history in the US is what I'm going to address. I'll also note that much of what follows is based on a paper prepared by videographer Bill Olson in 2000.

In the 1960s and 1970s, cable TV as we think of it now was getting going. Originally, "cable" TV would more properly be called Community Antenna TV, where large, sensitive antennas could receive weak signals from broadcast TV stations and deliver an amplified version to households in an area, usually rural, that otherwise would be served poorly, if all all, by broadcast stations. That is, this was still broadcast TV, just delivered by a central antenna, and there were no purely "cable channels."

But as cable systems including truly cable channels, ones that did not exist on broadcast, began to get established, the operators of those systems were desperate for programming to fill the hours and so were open to all sorts of options which the broadcast networks would not have considered.

Fred Friendly
Around that same time, the idea of the people who were the subjects of documentaries taking a role in the production and direction of those works was inspiring a generation of filmmakers. Counter-culture film cooperatives took the idea of the underground press - the expression of voices unheard in the traditional media - and expanded it to video in what became nicknamed "guerrilla television." They provided people with small, portable cameras and other necessary equipment so they could tell own stories, present own opinions, speak in their own voices, through documentaries and, often enough, news coverage of such as demonstrations, strikes, and other events that presented perspectives not otherwise seen.

According to one historian of the medium, public access in the US’s largest media market, New York City, was conceived in 1968 by Fred Friendly (yes, the same Fred Friendly who had been the head of CBS news) who was then an aide to Mayor John Lindsay. He proposed that cable companies having franchises with the city would set aside two channels where the public could lease airtime for a nominal fee. Ultimately, even the idea of a fee was set aside.

In July 1970, two companies signed franchise agreements with New York City, resulting in four channels being set aside: two for use by the general public, two for use by the city government. Public access programming began July 1971, with a potential audience of 80,000, which was the total subscriber base in Manhattan.

In response, groups sprang up to promote the idea of using public access and to help people with producing their own programming.

That is the FCC's logo, don't blame me
A breakthrough came in 1972: The FCC ruled that in the top 100 US markets, cable operators had to set aside three channels for public (including local government) use and to provide facilities and equipment for people to produce their own programs. (The agency added that if there was not sufficient demand to justify three channels, there could be fewer, but there had to be at least one.)

In 1976, that order was expanded to cover all systems with more than 3500 subscribers.

The cable industry, now experiencing explosive growth, of course hated the idea: It was "government regulation" that was damaging their profit potential for the benefit of a bunch of rubes. So the industry sued, and unhappily, in 1979, the Supreme Court, ever-eager to let industry know whose side it is on, ruled that the FCC lacked the regulatory authority to issue such a rule. Shades of the net neutrality argument.

However, by then, it was in a way too late. Cities and towns reaching franchise agreements with cable companies were often including a requirement for channel set-asides, so it didn't matter what the FCC couldn't say: The requirement was in the contract.

In the early 1980s, cable was still a competitive industry - unlike today when it's pretty much Time-Warner, Comcast, and Verizon and that's it. And cable was expanding so rapidly that cities and towns that announced an intention to license a cable system in their town would be deluged with proposals and so could make demands for set-asides and for assistance in maintaining those channels. Agree, or don't get the contract.

Meanwhile, in 1984 Congress passed the Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act, which effectively gave back most of what the Supreme Court took away five years earlier. The law did not specifically empower the FCC to issue the rules it did, but it did specifically authorize local governments as part of a franchise agreement with a cable operator to require PEG channels and to collect franchise fees from that operator to fund those public channels - that is, to provide needed equipment and facilities. It also barred those cable operators from exercising any editorial control over what was on those channels while also, reasonably, freeing them from liability for what was on them.

logo of Fayetteville, AK public access
Interestingly, for those of old enough to remember him, the chief Senate sponsor of the bill was Barry Goldwater.

Creating such a local public access system required setting up a group to do so. Sometimes that was arranged by the local government, sometimes it was done by the local government itself through some agency, sometimes it was the cable company itself that ran an access center.

But whatever arrangement was used, the result was that the number of PEG channels grew and continues to grow. It's now estimated that over 1500 cities, town, and regions across the country have PEG channels available and those 1500 areas are managing something like 5000 channels.

You’re watching one of those channels now. This is public access TV. Public access TV. That means it’s for you. It’s for us. It's for all of us. Take advantage of it. I did. You should, too.

Sources cited in links:

1 comment:

Instapundit Dotcom said...

I don't watch much TV, but I love to hear about government successfully harnessing the free market.

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