A Plea for Public Access Television
By ip4noman in Media
Thu Aug 22, 2002 at 06:10:51 PM EST
Tags: Freedom (all tags)
The United States Constitution defines a limited government, and the first ten Amendments are a Bill of Rights guaranteeing certain freedoms to the sovereign people. The
First Amendment asserts our rights of Free Speech, Freedom of Belief, and a Free Press, as these things were considered by our Founding Fathers to be absolutely necessary to a well-functioning democracy.
But consider that most people in America receive 90%+ of their news from traditional media (newspapers, television, and radio owned by for-profit corporations), and you realize that we don't have a free press today, and our republic may be in danger because of it. Today, we have a commercial press, which something really very different from "free", in every sense of the word.
There is a power-shift occuring now with alternative media, from Indymedia, Pacifica Radio, and K5. However most people get most of their news from television.
Public Access Television was created to help balance the power of the huge monopoly media giants. Unfortunately, most people don't know what it is all about
This article presents a history of Public Access Television, and gives information about how to become involved to make your own TV shows. If you don't have a facility in your town, we'll tell you how to get one!
[Note: This essay may be a bit US-centric, because this is where I live, and these are the laws which I've studied. However,
Public Access is worldwide...]
Why do we need Public Access Television?
"It is arguable that the success of business propaganda in persuading us, for so long, that we are free from propaganda is one of the most significant propaganda acheivments of the twentieth century." -- Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out Of Democracy
It is not within the charter of the commercial press to inform, or educate. It's not about promoting the useful arts and sciences, philosophy and meaningful political debate.
The commercial media is about one thing: PROFIT. Making money, selling our captive neural pathways to corporate propagandaists, also known as advertising executives and
Public Relations consultants.
Their propaganda (advertising) is designed to: first, make you feel lacking, imperfect, diseased, afraid, and alone, then, to make you believe that the cure for your problems is shopping.
Our Free Press, it seems, has been sold out. The best we have is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but they're still pretty corporate. "Paid for by Archer Daniels Midland: Supermarket to the World, and Pepsico: Sugary
Caffeinated Drinks to the World!, and General Electric: Nuclear Weapons to the World". Is it any wonder that the entire range of debate on the
Jim Lehrer News Hour is not IF we should go to war, but WHEN? Or that
All Things Considered considers everything except peace, the environment, the rights of the accused, and government and corporate responsibility?
city and the surrounding area, there are
about 15 radio stations, 6 broadcast television stations, and half dozen newspapers. I've been doing research to find out who owns these, and found a tangled web of corporate tendrils: cross ownership in the same market of multiple media types, wealth-concentrating corporate synergies and for-profit partnerships, not suprisingly, acting in their own self-interest.
Viacom, Rupert Murdoch's
News Corporation, and Disney control almost everything we see and hear, and they control thousands of similar "properties" nationwide, from small to large newspapers, billboards, book and magazine publishing, even communication satellites. One company in town (ClearChannel) owns six radio and two television stations, and owns 1200 radio stations nationwide!!
These massive monopoly media corporations produce the content, and they control the distribution, seemingly in conflict with anti-trust laws. They abhor competition and absorb their competitors. Their corporate offices aren't even based in the communities which they serve. And you can better believe their reason for doing business in your town is to remove profits.
But all corporations are chartered by the government to act in the public interest. (They must be, because the granting authority, the government, is itself chartered to act in the public interest!) However, like their fellow legal fictions Enron, WorldCom, and Arthur Anderson, they have showed an utter contempt for us, and where accumulating profits is concerned, that nothing shall stand in their way.
These corporations possess incredible power to influence elections and promote candidates which are known to favor their corporate advertisers, and to silence real dissent and critical thought. (e.g., witness how Ralph Nader and Harry Browne were excluded from the 2000 presidential debates.) These media corporations polarize issues into simple-minded bipolar "Left vs. Right" pseudo-alternatives, and they spin the issues to favor their own interests.
But there is a solution: Non-Commercial, Community Produced media, like Public Access Television.
Public Access Television: History
Now when we talk about Public Access Television (sometimes called PEG in FCC documents, for Public, Education, and Government Access), we are not talking about anything related to the Public Broadcasting Service, National Public Radio, Public Radio International, or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. These entities were created by federal law, but have become so awash with corporate dollars that any hope of a balanced presentation of the news has been lost.
stated here, David Barsamian, in his new book "The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting,"
points out similarities between the top execs currently running CPB and NPR: "Robert T. Coonrod has been the president and CEO of the CPB since 1997. Prior to joining CPB, Coonrod was deputy managing director of the Voice of America," operated by the U.S. government. Meanwhile, "NPR's president and CEO Kevin Klose served as the director of the International Broadcasting Bureau, which oversees VOA, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and Radio and Television Marti."
This government and corporate entanglement is the source of the bias and censorship present with PBS/NPR. Public Access Television has a different evolution than PBS, but first let's examine the current state of FCC regulation of the media.
Today's Federal Communication Commission is under Chairman Michael Powell, who is the son of Secretary of State General Colin Powell,
who served on the board of AOL, and made 4 million dollars when son Chairman Michael allowed the AOL/Time Warner merger to proceed without scrutiny. With these political and finanical connections, is it any wonder why the FCC has abolished the
Fairness Doctrine, requiring the presentation of opposing viewpoints, and
the rules against cross-ownership in the same market?
But the FCC (and Congress from which they derive their authority) wasn't always this corporate-friendly. At one time they actually did a pretty good job at trying to ensure a balanced presentation of the news, and equal access to electronic media. Beginning with the 1934 Communications Act, and existing though the 1970's, broadcasters had an obligation to air important issues, and were compelled to air dissenting views.
But the industry was changing fast, and Cable Television providers started springing up. These "community antenna" systems were vitural monopolies in their markets and weilded incredible power. In 1976 (coincidently, two hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence), something revoluntionary happened. To counter the effects of these new monopolies,
the FCC made a rule requiring that Cable TV franchisees build Local Origination facilities, i.e., television studios, in the areas where they served, for use by anyone in the community on a first-come, first-serve, non-discriminatory basis. Use of these facilites was to be free, and training was to be very low cost, so that even low income people could easily participate. Public Access Television was born!
You see, in America it is held that the people hold the sovereign (lawmaking) power, and thus the people own the airwaves. The government acts simply as a steward of this precious recource, a guardian acting in the public trust. Just like there exists a public right-of-way on the farm-to-market roads and freeways, there exists similar rights of way over the electromagnetic spectrum, whether travelling though the air, or over buried cables or telephone lines.
That's how it's supposed to work anyway. But something has gone wrong. Something has become perverted. Control has been stolen by the rich and powerful. This is why Public Access Television (and it's sibling,
Community Radio) are essential in our system of checks and balances.
How does it get paid for?
Imagine, if we all pool our resources, say, a dollar or two each month. Multiply that by 50,000 or 100,000 people. And what if we are already paying for this now? Now, lets say with that money, we purchase our own production equipment:
Television cameras, switchers, lights, VTRs, portable gear, non-linear editting systems... everything we need in order to make television productions just as good as the Home Shopping Network or MTV, and we set it up so anyone in area can take classes, inexpensive classes, like 30-40 dollars each, so that anyone can afford it, and learn to use this equipment?
It turns out this is exactly how it is supposed to be funded, by user-fees, a franchise tax (up to 5%) which is added to everyone's cable bill.
However, even though most cable providers provide a public access channel, many communities have little or no public access television facilities to use.
How to make your own Public Access Television Show.
Jello Biafra says, "Don't hate the media; become the media!". Public Access Television is supposed to allow us free access to the tools of television production.
So if you want to become involved, first contact your local cable television provider. Ask to speak with the Public Access Coordinator, and ask about taking classes to learn how to use the Local Origination facilities for Public Access productions. Chances are, you will have to call and talk with several people until you finally find the person who knows what you are talking about. (A list of many of these facilities is located at the
Global Village CAT)
If you are very lucky, you can take a class, probably about 5-6 weeks long, and become studio certified. The people in your class will probably end up helping each other on productions, and the instructor may be able to give you contacts to producers who are already making shows. (It is best to crew on other shows for a while before making your own television production)
There are many tasks to be done, but remember that it's all volunteer work: don't expect to get paid to run camera for someone. That's not what Public Access is all about.
What if there is no Public Access facility in your town?
Now things get a bit more difficult. There may be a facility in a nearby town where you can make shows. Also, in most towns without a facility, you can still produce shows on your own equipment and have them cablecast on your cable network, free of charge.
But if you want to get a real facility in your town, you have a lot of work to do, and it could take years. But the payoff is fantastic in the cultural change that occurs in cities which have a thriving community of Public Access producers, and the wonderful fun to be had!
So, you must first obtain the Franchise Agreement. This is a contract between your city and the cable provider which defines the service that they must provide. Are there Public Access provisions there that aren't being met? Are there other areas of non-compliance which can be used as leverage? Has your town received all the franchise fees that they are owed? Is the franchise up for renewal soon?
You should be able to obtain this document by filing a Freedom of Information Act request with your town clerk. They may charge you a small amount for photocoping costs.
Where you go from here is not easy to guess, as there are many possible paths, depending on what you find. You will have to become a bit of a politician. You may have to attend city council meetings, and you will probably have to speak with the management of the cable provider. You will also have to research the laws in your state, federal laws, and the history of Public Access.
It will not be easy. I have been working for nearly 2 years in my city, but there are signs of progress. Our franchise is up for renewal, so the cable provider has an incentive to look good in the eyes of the community.
So, get up off your butt and GET INVOLVED! Make your own TV show!
"Don't hate the media; BECOME the media!" -- Jello Biafra
I hope this essay has piqued your interest, and you get involved in making your own television shows. It is more fun than you can imagine!
Global Village CAT. The most comprehensive list of Public Access links, worldwide.
- Weblogs: PublicAccessTV.net (Scoop, of course!), and
Reclaim the Media.
Media Monoply, by Ben Bagdikian. The cannonical text on media bias caused by corporate ownership.
Manufacturing Consent and
Necessary Illusions, by Noam Chomsky. The function and dangers of abuse of the media in Democratic societies
- Democracy Now!, the daily Pacifica radio show by Community Media pioneer Amy Goodman. Live streaming Realaudio, and MP3 archives availible. Covers national and international news, as well as Community Media issues.
- Program on Corporations Law and Democracy, and Ratical.org
When Corporations Rule the World: The dangers posed by corporations.
- Alliance for Community Media: Public Access Television advocacy group.
- My story of bringing Public Access Television to my city.
- FCC fact sheet on cable television
47 USC § 531, the section of the United States Code which defines Public Access.
- Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: Media watchdog group.