The explosion in the use of video conferencing set off by the coronavirus pandemic and the shocking videos captured on smartphones of the killings of Black people by police have brought back memories of do-it-yourself television made popular four decades ago with the advent of a medium and forum for grassroots democracy called public-access TV.
Today the grainy videos and poor lighting and audio of news interviews being streamed from makeshift studios in the homes of cable news hosts like Chris Cuomo, along with the amateur videos of police misconduct that quickly go viral on the Internet, harken back to my involvement in the early days of what came to be known as "PEG TV" — public, educational and government television — when we feared that the poor technical quality of programs would prevent us from ever establishing an audience.
I was the PEG director for Atlanta and helped develop the blueprint for the nation's public-access programs. Cable companies offered PEG funding and channels to local governments in exchange for access to the public right of way to bury or string their cables. The larger companies also offered local governments millions of dollars to build studios and purchase video, audio and editing equipment. In the end, PEG channels gave ordinary citizens an electronic soapbox to speak what was on their minds, void of gatekeepers from traditional media.
It was a forum for leaders and activists as well. In Atlanta, the multi-center community television operation I built and directed gave civil rights leaders like the Rev. Hosea Williams, one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s top lieutenants, an opportunity to advocate their brand of populism. It gave the League of Women Voters a platform to pitch its voter-participation messages to a narrow but loyal viewership. And it was where the careers of some then-unknown cultural icons like Ru Paul and the Indigo Girls got an early boost.
This type of television has all but gone away, done in by regulatory and court rulings, evolving cable franchise agreements, and the growth of streaming services that bypass cable entirely. But we see its legacy in today's grassroots media activism, citizen journalism and public access to digital platforms like video blogging, chatting and live streaming.
During the good old days of PEG, many of us argued that good television was not just about polished production techniques — PEG was anything but commercially slick, drawing the scorn of professional broadcasters — but about producers having the courage to say something important.
Now, because of the coronavirus the tables have turned and media personalities must do their shows from their homes with their spouses or children serving as camera operators. The viewing public often has to put up with fluctuating sound, poor lighting and jumpy video. But meaningful things are being communicated. We watch because we are interested in the information being shared, and news directors have had to come to terms with an uncomfortable tradeoff of production values for information and content.
That same tradeoff is evident in the work of citizen journalists, as the public has come to use cellphones more than any other medium not only to access content but also to document and record life as it occurs, sometimes streaming it live over one or more social media platforms, as was the case in the fatal shooting by a police officer of Philando Castile in Minnesota during a 2016 traffic stop.
Often the killings and acts of brutality have been ignored by media and public officials until videos make their way into the news or social media. This sometimes leads to reopening of investigations and arrests. In the case of Ahmaud Arbery, an African American man who was shot to death near Brunswick, Ga., in February, three white men were arrested and charged with murder, but only after weeks of investigative inaction and the viral spread of a video recorded by one of the arrested men. And new state and federal investigations have been sparked by widespread protests over the case of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died a week after being placed in a chokehold by Aurora, Colo., police last summer in a streetside encounter partially captured on officers' body-camera video.
The protests that have followed those and other deaths, along with the impact of the pandemic on so many aspects of our lives, have challenged us to see personal technology differently and driven home the point that technology, in the hands of citizens, can be a powerful force, transforming individuals from being mere consumers of media to being producers.
The significance of cellphone video, particularly that shot by amateurs, has also raised important policy and legal questions for public officials. Can amateur videographers who have recorded potentially criminal acts have their video confiscated by authorities? Can they be hauled into court and made to testify for the defense or the state? Who will protect them if they become witnesses in high-profile cases, and will fear of that happening have a chilling effect upon the public coming forward?
Back in the 1960s, Newton Minow, who was then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, called television "a vast wasteland." He was referring to commercial television at a time when three powerful networks controlled virtually all programming. Those days are long gone. Now, due to a stubborn virus and tech-savvy citizens armed with smart devices and easy access to digital streaming platforms, television may help us on the way to the promised land.
Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.