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The Uncertain Future of Public Access Television

It started out as a grassroots medium for community speech, but now it’s struggling to survive. It needs a new platform that blends the best of its past with today’s technology.

A broadcast on Atlanta’s public access television channel.
A broadcast on Atlanta’s public access television channel.
(Atlanta City Council)
It was a hot, steamy day in July 1980 when I started work as the director of public access television for Cable Atlanta, the company that had won the franchise battle to operate cable TV for the metropolitan area. City Councilman James Bond, the bespectacled, bearded younger brother of Julian Bond, had successfully led the fight to ensure that the city’s public access provisions were among the strongest in the nation. But today public access television, once a promising innovation of cable, is struggling to survive all over America. Its fate now is in the hands of local public officials as it faces a variety of legal and regulatory obstacles placed in the way by longstanding detractors.

Public access goes by many names: community television and media, PEG (public, educational and government access), access television and more. It refers to a type of grassroots medium of free speech that traces its roots back to the civil rights movement and beyond. It is typically a media operation consisting of television production facilities, channels and equipment mandated by local governments as part of cable franchise agreements. The public’s access to these facilities is usually free or for a nominal fee. The programming mainly reaches narrow audiences, and the content ranges from neighborhood-based news to zany vanity video shows. But at its best, it animates the community and provides programming diversity.

Reflecting on the early days of public access, in many cases it was the linchpin in determining which companies won the competition for franchises. Public access was, in essence, a proxy for how committed cable companies were to their communities. I argued back then that the greatest value of public access was not necessarily in the quirky programming that some of the participants produced but rather its role in deciding which companies would win the lucrative franchises.

During the heydays of access, Cable Atlanta spent $500,000 a year ($1.8 million in today’s dollars) operating public access, before it and the city created People TV, a nonprofit media corporation, in 1986. Cable operators in other cities, including Boston, Chicago and Dallas, spent even more in those early days. Now, People TV and similar small programs across the country typically operate on budgets of less than $200,000 per year. According to the Alliance for Community Media, in 1980 there were 2,500 access centers across the country. Today, there are only 1,600, and most of them are small operations with just one to three employees.

What happened? Down through the years, cable companies have waged a fierce battle to eliminate public access funding requirements, even though they have always passed the costs on to subscribers. Occasionally, local governments have entered the fray, though too often with actions interpreted by some as being hostile to public access. Just recently, for example, Atlanta took over the city’s People TV operations in what was described as a temporary measure while it decides what to do with the public access channel. Previously, cities as diverse as Columbia, Mo., and San Francisco have closed or threatened to close their public access programs. States have also usurped local governments’ purview over cable by giving control to state agencies.

All this turmoil raises important questions: Is the public interest protected when cities take over or close public access operations and channels? Do public access channels still add value for program diversity and freedom of speech? And is public access to cable even needed in today’s digital times?

Let’s address the governance issue first: Should local governments take over public access? Only as a last resort, in my view, for several reasons. First, most local governments have their hands full programming the “G” part of the PEG triumvirate — government access. Historically, there have been disagreements over whether the executive or legislative branches of local government benefit the most from government access. With this longstanding tension still present, having local governments assume additional responsibility operating public access will only make matters worse.

Another important reason why local governments should not administer public access channels is that it brings First Amendment issues into play. When a director of an independent public access station refuses to schedule a program that he or she believes is obscene or defamatory, there is little fear that someone will bring a free-speech lawsuit against that access station, the cable operator or the city. But if a city employee does the same thing, it’s not clear whether that employee is violating the protected speech of a resident. Further, city employees operating a public access channel would find themselves in serious conflicts of interest when political opponents of the mayor or city council members request channel time to telecast programs critical of them.

This is not to say that there is no oversight role for local officials. That role is making sure public access is run according to agreements local governments sign with third-party operators. But even this oversight function is best carried out by citizens’ boards rather than directly by city employees or public officials.

And this leads to the final — and perhaps even more important — question of whether public access is even needed in today’s digital age. Many access channels already bypass cable altogether and stream directly from platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. Public access as a medium on cable may no longer be needed, as cable continues to lose subscribers and audience share and residents have a growing array of other digital platforms to choose from. But public access as an enduring principle will always be needed. The concept that the public needs a voice free of gatekeepers to speak truth to power is as valid as ever.

I recommend that public officials, as an alternative to taking over public access operations and channels or closing them down, form blue-ribbon committees comprised of community producers, for-profit and nonprofit media executives, communication and technology educators from higher education institutions (including HBCUs and technology-focused colleges and universities), and representatives of high-tech industries. Give them one charge: Bring back a plan that will take the best of public access’ past and blend it with the best that technology offers for now and the near future. Show us what this new platform looks like. Tell us how to sustain it. And explain how it will guarantee that all voices — even unpopular ones — will be heard. It’s past time for public access 2.0.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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