October 28, 1997


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Competition does not always lead to choice. In the media, the opposite can happen. As new companies enter the cable TV industry, all the contenders rush after a few big money-making channels. One of the losers is public access, the shining democratic promise that cable once offered. These days, the well-known trio of public, educational, and government (PEG) programming is struggling to stay solvent.

It is hard to remember the beginning of the cable era now, but it was originally meant to be a public-access paradise. Proponents of democracy hallelujahed in the same way that many express great hopes for the Internet nowadays. The tremendous new bandwidth of cable (remember when there were only three or four TV stations in each town?) and local control were supposed to combine and spontaneously produce a democratic explosion. As Thomas Streeter points out in his article Blue Skies and Strange Bedfellows: the Discourse of Cable Television:

the generally “glittering promise” of this new dazzling technology [found its way] into discussions in the FCC, the Rand corporation, and the elite popular press.

Obviously, the promise remains unfulfilled. Many communities have some form of public access, but it is underfunded—and without adequate regulatory protection it is now in danger of disappearing.

Public access advocates in my own community started to worry the moment the Telecommunications Act was signed. Following its provisions for cable competition, a new company named Residential Communications Network entered local markets. It was bolstered by money from the electric utility, which is still a monopoly, and plastered the metropolitan area with posters featuring the fall of the Berlin Wall and the toppling of Lenin statues.

The connotations of these ads were that RCN will bring a new era of diversity and representation. The public will speak, and its voice will shake regimes. But the ruthlessly homogenizing role of competition belies such expectations.

Under conditions of competition, companies become more cost-conscious. Public access, which airs no ads and therefore brings in no revenue of its own, becomes suspect. The cable provider may appreciate the good will generated by broadcasts of town selectmen’s meetings and amateur documentaries, but managers can’t help feeling that they would gain more viewers as well as more money by replacing public access with another couple sports channels.

My town’s incumbent cable company, MediaOne, is trying to consolidate public access channels and generate programs about the whole region instead of fostering town-by-town programming. The local studio in Arlington, Massachusetts is being shut down and moved to the next community, which will seriously reduce opportunities for shooting programs and the ability of local residents to participate (although we are eventually supposed to get a new studio in our own town).

The incumbent company’s contract allowed it to reduce its contribution from $10,000 to $5,000 the moment Arlington signed a contract with its competitor. RCN is supposed to pay the other $5,000 out of income—but it hasn’t even started stringing cable yet!

The narrowing options in cable parallel similar threats in the broadcast medium. Even though digital broadcasting will give broadcasters six times their current capacity for channels, there may well be no requirements for them to offer public access. A Clinton administration advisory committee to define public interest obligations had their first meeting on October 22, but the only specific requirement suggested by the administration so far concerns free time for candidates for public office.

How much importance does the public assign to public access? Contrary to frequent jabs about its slow pace and amateurish production quality, a survey of 410 Arlington customers by MediaOne shows a quite reasonable demand. Seventy-four percent have watched the channel at least once, fourteen percent watch several times a month, and 3.4 percent watch every day.

Think for a minute about that 3.4 percent. It looks like a small number, but these are probably the community leaders of Arlington. Whether by organizing bake sales for charity, ferrying their neighbors’ kids to hockey games, or attending school board meetings, they play a critical role in keeping town life healthy—and they need information to do their job.

In short, public access television plays a role that cannot be determined by simply comparing its viewership to other channels. Steven Galeotalanza, president of Arlington Community Television, says, “We are all losing our sense of community. Public access is where it can be rebuilt.” Seeing elected officials at work, local sports, and local arts, or even footage of the annual Town Day keeps alive everything that we value about our community.

Other communities have found a more robust solution to the funding problem, one that can better survive competition. Funds from all competitors go to independent non-profits, who can then market their programs to any provider.

As television goes digital, there will be more and more distribution opportunities. While some forms of competition (such as satellites) emphasize global over local programming, others (particularly the Internet, if its bandwidth gets fast enough for video) could make local distribution almost automatic. Once tied totally to the largesse of a single cable provider, public access stations may find distribution as easy as setting up a PC to be an Internet server.

So perhaps the rosy promises of the early cable advocates were not so far off. They were mistaken to think that bandwidth and local control alone would promote community programming. As Streeter points out, one must avoid thinking that new technology can transcend its own commercial setting and solve social problems by itself. And while we can fall into the same trap in judging the Internet, it does possess one advantage over cable TV: it lets each individual pull in the material he or she wants, while cable leaves the choice of material up to the channel operators and ultimately the cable provider. The Internet may not replace the role of public access television—as some would claim—but will finally allow it to fulfill its promise.

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