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Proposed Legislation May Affect Future of Public-Access Television
Published on Tuesday, November 8, 2005 by the New York Times
Proposed Legislation May Affect Future of Public-Access Television
by Felicia R. Lee
 
One recent afternoon, in a small brownstone dwarfed by the shine and sprawl of the nearby Time Warner Center in Midtown Manhattan, Joel Igartua got ready for his close-up. The 18-year-old high school senior was honing his interview skills and mastering video camera basics to make public service announcements for Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a public-access television station.

"People should have the right to make their own shows," Mr. Igartua said. "TV is powerful. Everyone watches TV."

For every hour of "Desperate Housewives" on ABC, the nation's 3,000 public-access television channels present dozens of hours of local school board meetings, Little League games and religious services. Not to mention programs like "The Great Grown-Up Spelling Bee," a spelling bee for adults that raises money for the Kalamazoo, Mich., public library, and "Fruta Extrena," a bilingual gay talk show in New York City.

Now, though, the future of the channels deemed "electronic soapboxes" in 1972 by the Federal Communications Commission is uncertain, as proposed legislation about how the telecommunications industry is regulated winds its way through Congress.

The main concern for public-access advocates is that the law preserve the ability of municipalities to negotiate franchise agreements for cable television. Those agreements pay for the public-access programs and allow municipalities to determine how many channels they want and allow public access programmers like Manhattan Neighborhood Network to train nonprofit groups to produce their own shows. The proposed legislation varies in its specifics, but several bills aim to allow more video-services competition - easing the way for telephone companies to compete for the franchises - and minimize regulations for franchises. Advocates of the legislation say that the fears of the demise of public access are exaggerated and that some local control of franchises is written into the bills.

Currently, most cable franchise agreements include a franchise fee paid by cable providers for using city property, putting millions of dollars in city coffers, some of which can be used for public-access channels. Some agreements also provide explicit financing and support for the community's use of the cable system. Public, educational and government - or "PEG" - access channels tend to be uneven in their quality and production values. But, say advocates, these shows are not meant to sell products or just entertain, but to mirror community interests and needs.

"There has to be some portion of the system open to public use, which has public revenue supporting it," Anthony T. Riddle, executive director of the Washington-based Alliance for Community Media, said of his advocacy of public access. The group represents 1,000 media centers nationwide.

Yesterday, to take advantage of election eve, thousands of public-access channels nationwide were scheduled to show one minute of video snow simultaneously to protest the legislative proposals, beginning at 9 p.m., Eastern time. The alliance is joined by the National League of Cities and the United States Conference of Mayors in opposing any bill that would strip local control of cable franchises. Public-access advocates are appealing to politicians and to the public to hear their case.

The cable business has $60 billion in revenue annually, and last year cable operators paid $2.4 billion in franchise fees, according to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the cable industry's principal trade association.

Under federal law, cities can collect a franchise fee that is up to 5 percent of the gross revenue generated from the delivery of cable services.

With 33,000 local cable franchises across the country, telephone companies are now pressuring the federal government for speedier access to franchises and fewer restrictions. In Texas recently, SBC and Verizon got that state to set up a uniform clearing-house approach, meaning that these companies can apply to the state for franchises and do not have to negotiate agreements with each municipality separately.

"One of the big questions is, Is there a place for public interest in our media policy, or is it one size fits all?" said Rick Junger, the director of community media at Manhattan Neighborhood Network.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association has not weighed in on any specifics of the proposed laws because it is too early, said a spokesman for the association, Rob Stoddard. The organization's concern, he said, is that any new rules on franchises apply to all video providers, whether they are traditional cable providers or telephone companies.

What advocates hope is not lost in all the fights over politics and technology is their idea of public access as a First Amendment right, especially for people and towns underrepresented on television. The local franchise agreements, they said, have provided a tried and true mechanism to handle customer complaints, determine local programming needs and deliver the money to produce those programs.

Mr. Riddle said that the groups he represents produced 20,000 hours of new programs a week, using 1.2 million volunteers and 250,000 community groups in any given year. That's more programming, he added, than the broadcast networks combined.

"It's where we turn for a sense of self," Laurie Cirivello, executive director of the Community Media Center of Santa Rosa, said of the four access channels in her Northern California community of 150,000. The channels feature locally produced shows like "Mrs. Twizzleton's Magic Garden," a children's program with a local psychologist as host, and a number of Spanish-language shows.

Ms. Cirivello noted that Santa Rosa, near San Francisco, has no local television stations.

Legislators say their bills are needed because the current telecommunication laws did not foresee the Internet explosion, or new video technology like telephone service over the Internet, and interactive television.

The Video Choice Act, introduced in the House by Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, has been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Senate version, introduced by Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon, and Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, has been referred to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. In the Senate, a bill introduced by John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, which covers a broader range of telecommunications issues, is known as the Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act.

"This legislation allows consumers - not government bureaucrats - to choose the best services at the best prices," Senator Ensign said in an e-mail message. The Ensign bill, now also in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has drawn the most fire from opponents, who say the House and Senate versions of the Video Choice Act are more flexible in their language.

"It is just flat wrong to say we eliminate public, educational and government channels," Senator Ensign said. "Our bill specifically requires video providers to carry up to four PEG channels."

He said his bill did not eliminate the 5 percent franchise fee. It extends it, he said, to new video providers and also has an entire section protecting the ability of state and local governments to manage their rights of way.

Representative Blackburn said that her bill was intended to create more affordable video options and more diversity in programming. "My bill seeks to keep limitations and regulations to a minimum in order to encourage an active, growing marketplace rather than the atrophied one we have right now," she said in an e-mail message.

But public-access advocates argue that these are empty words and that questions remain, including those concerning how franchise fees are defined and who oversees the collection of right-of-way revenue. Senator Ensign's aides acknowledged that the definition of "revenue" for franchise fees was still debatable. Whether revenue from purchases on a home shopping channel should be included, as they currently are, is one question that has to be answered, an aide to Senator Ensign said. The Ensign bill also caps the number of access channels at four in each municipality, although some big cities already have more. New York City, for example, has nine PEG channels.

Ralph Engelman, the chairman of the journalism department at Long Island University's Brooklyn campus, said, "The whole concept is a somewhat radical, democratic vision - giving ordinary citizens access to the most persuasive communications medium that exists." He added: "It's incredibly diverse, and it's very raw. It's probably a better reflection of what our society is than mainstream television."

The personalities from public access sometimes even make it onto mainstream television. RuPaul, the cross-dressing entertainer, kicked off his career in 1982 on a weekly public-access show in Atlanta called "The American Music Show."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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