Guest Column: Community access TV threatened

In a given week, Chicago’s fleet of five community access cable channels—together called CAN TV—carry an astounding variety of homegrown TV programming. News and public affairs shows in Italian, Serbo-Croatian, Polish, Spanish and Haitian Creole; a political forum on civil rights in the city’s Mexican community; a call-in show on domestic violence; a feature-length video on a neighborhood arts center; a youth-produced show about issues facing teen-agers; and regular coverage of city council meetings and the state legislature in Springfield are all featured.

During the 2004 election, CAN TV also ran some 160 hours of local election coverage. This is remarkable at a time when most of Chicago’s commercial broadcasters opted not to report on even hotly contested Congressional races, much less municipal elections.

Across Illinois, dozens of public, educational and governmental (or PEG) cable access channels like CAN TV provide an outlet for locally-produced television focused resolutely on local issues, local politics and community concerns. Nationwide, 1.2 million citizens and 250,000 organizations use the country’s 3,000 PEG channels every year.

Because for-profit broadcasters and cable companies are ignoring ever-larger segments of the population in their relentless pursuit of audiences who are wealthy, white and young, PEG channels are very often the only outlet for programming made by and for communities of color, immigrant groups and workers.

Unfortunately, even these last remaining outposts of localism and diversity on television are being threatened by an ill-considered proposal now moving through Congress.

The proposal would seriously undercut the financial future of PEG channels in Illinois and nationwide.

Currently, PEG stations are funded by a portion of the local franchise fee that cable companies pay to the cities where they operate.

Technological and regulatory changes now make it possible for telephone companies to compete with cable for the right to deliver television services to American homes. But the big telecommunications conglomerates say it would be expensive and time-consuming for them to pay local franchise fees to thousands of local governments. And they resent the idea of having to pay for PEG channels.

So, Big Telecom went to Congress, and, with the aid of millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions from the likes of AT&T and Verizon, apparently persuaded our legislators to “fix” what’s not broken. Already, the House Commerce Committee approved a proposal that would replace local TV agreements with national video franchises.

This proposal would require holders of national TV franchises to pay fees to cities, but it would reduce the base for determining those fees (by excluding certain types of services). This opens the door to the possible exemption of TV services from all local fees. It would also seal the number of PEG channels at current levels, even though digital technology advances would allow for 10 times more PEG channels than when community access cable was first created.

Worse still, the proposal would allow national video franchisees to focus the “build out” of their services on only the most affluent (and hence most profitable) areas, thus bypassing rural and low-income, inner-city communities.

Essentially, if this becomes law, it would further impoverish the nation’s already under-funded PEG stations and could well pave the way to the eventual elimination of community access TV altogether.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, the Alliance for Community Media and other supporters of PEG channels are currently mobilizing to defeat this proposal.

If we want to preserve even a small forum for community concerns on the nation’s most powerful and widespread communications platform, citizens should act quickly to block Big Telecom’s schemes.

Stephen Macek is an assistant professor of speech communication at North Central College. Mitchell Szczepanczyk is an organizer with Chicago Media Action and a frequent contributor to assorted Chicago-area independent media efforts in print, Web, radio and television. Reprinted by permission from the Illinois Editorial Forum, P.O. Box 82, Springfield, IL 62705-0082.

From the July 5-11, 2006, issue

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