Public Access Under Attack

(This article originally appeared on the Web site of Arlington Independent Media.)

In the last few years, Indiana has lost many of its public access television stations and with them the locally produced programs that once served its communities. No more high school sports coverage in Merrillville. The sheriff in Porter no longer offers crime-stopping tips on the access station there. East Chicago used to have a public access program devoted to city politics, but no more. Producers of shows that once covered local programming, culture, and events have found the doors locked and the lights down at their public access studios.

It would be nice to say that the forces that killed public access in these towns were local to Indiana. But the fact is that in the U.S., public access is threatened as never before in its 30+ year history. The threat comes from changes in new franchising laws enacted by state and local governments. In some cases, cable TV providers have pressured lawmakers to leave out the franchise provisions necessary for public access to survive.
The future is uncertain. For public access to survive, state and local governments must commit to providing this resource in a time of change.

Why Franchising Matters

Franchising has always played an important role in public access TV. Cable companies need to use local infrastructure (called “right-of-way”) to deliver a television signal. They need to hang cables from telephone poles and tear up streets to bury fiber optic lines. To compensate local governments, they pay what’s called a franchising fee. Until recently, most local governments had complete authority in negotiating these fees. They could determine how much to charge the cable companies based on the needs and goals of the community.

Here in Arlington, Virginia, the local government made a decision in 1982 to provide citizens with the access to media. In its franchising agreement, it negotiated funds for a public access television station, which now goes by the name Arlington Independent Media (AIM). As each franchising agreement expires and the time comes for re-negotiation, the government has demanded funding for the station, as well as a home on the dial for the station’s programming.

Then Came Fiber

The past few years have brought changes to the telecommunication industry. Fiber optic technology has allowed companies that provide telephone service to also deliver cable television.  These new players entering the cable TV market don’t always want to pay the franchising fees that support public access, and have put their lobbyists to work convincing governments to do away with them.

Two years ago, a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives threatened to take away local governments’ ability to negotiate franchising fees. If it had passed, Congress would have determined how much cable providers had to pay for right-of-way across the country. Fortunately, the bill didn’t pass.

Undeterred, cable providers worked on state governments, pressuring them to create state-wide franchising agreements. This is what happened in Indiana, and the result was communities losing their public access stations. These communities no longer have a place for citizens to learn the tools of media nor a place on the dial for local voices.

Community Commitment

The news isn’t all grim. Here in Arlington, we have a franchising agreement that will keep us going until at least 2013. But it didn’t just fall into our laps. To get our franchising agreement, AIM had to organize and let lawmakers know what we wanted. Our experience may give you ideas on how doing the same in your area.

Several years ago, the Virginia state legislature considered a bill which would have enacted a statewide franchising agreement unfavorable to public access Rather than let this happen, AIM took action. We hired a lobbyist. We organized trips to the state capital in Richmond, where AIM staff members and members of our Board of Directors spoke on behalf of public access.

The bill was changed. We did get a state-wide franchising agreement, but not one fatal to public access. Still, it added a new wrinkle to our situation. Whereas the old funding agreement contained a provision that sent funds directly from the cable provider to AIM, franchising funds now went through the county government. There’s no law saying the county has to fund public access; it’s a decision made every funding cycle.

AIM responded by sending a group of more than 50 producers and citizens to a county Board meeting, where AIM executive director Paul LeValley spoke on behalf of the station. At one point he asked all AIM supporters to stand up. The sight of dozens of voters willing to show up at a county meeting on behalf of public access was very impressive. Our franchise agreement turned out well.

Depending on the situation in your state, you’ll need to determine which public officials need to hear your message and the best way to get that message across.

No Entitlement

AIM’s situation is secure, at least through 2013. But in the new world of cable TV, nothing is a given. Franchising fees that funded public access stations were once a given; now, they’re something we have to fight for.

Those who believe in the public access mission of giving citizens the knowledge, tools, and opportunity to create their own programming need to get involved. Step one is to understand the situation in your state. Step two is to make your voice heard to the right people. And when possible, share your experiences with public access producers in other areas, so that they can benefit from your experience.

Update, January 2009: The Los Angeles Times reports that 11 of that city’s 12 public access stations have now been shut down. Read the article here:

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