OF PUBLIC ACCESS TELEVISION
Copyright 2000 by William D.S. Olson
FREEDOM OF SPEECH
Mass media have never guaranteed access by the common man. Throughout history, each new medium seemed to tip the balance of equal expression further in favor of the wealthy elite. Literacy gave the written word to those who could afford an education. Newspapers, magazines, radio and television have had exclusive ownership, and paid advertising as a means of personal expression has been hindered by high rates. Even the notion of publicly owned airwaves has never guaranteed people automatic access to them. The common man's traditional forum has often been a soapbox in the town-square - a strong voice on a busy street corner.
Today, the corner teeming with pedestrians is dying, replaced by shopping malls whose corporate owners prohibit protesters and orators. But in many communities with cable television, the common man has a new soapbox - one from which his voice can potentially reach thousands of cable subscribers.
Public access TV, also called cable access, community access, community television, and PEG (Public, Education and Government), is a system that provides television production equipment, training and airtime on a local cable channel, so members of the public can produce their own shows and televise them to a mass audience.
In the United States, public access depends on the cable medium. Community Antenna Television began in Astoria, Oregon, when L. E. Parsons erected an antenna atop the hotel in which he lived to receive the broadcasts of KRSC-TV in Seattle, Washington. He later extended service to the hotel lobby, then to a nearby music store, and later to residences (Gillespie, 20).
Public access began long before television, when Canadian filmmaker Robert Flaherty allowed an Inuit hunter to participate in the production decisions of what became the first documentary (ibid, 27). "Nanook of the North" was released in 1922, but it would be an inspiration to a group of Canadian filmmakers in the 1960s. The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) experimented with a project called Challenge for Change, a documentary film series that was part of Canada's "War on Poverty." According to David Gee, Secretary of the Interdepartmental Committee of the Challenge for Change program, its purpose was "to create in Canadians an awareness of the need for change in order that [people] may achieve a better quality of life. The film medium permits people not only to become aware of problems facing them in their society, but of government programs that can offer real solutions to these problems" (ibid, 23).
The first Challenge for Change documentary, "September 5 at Saint-Henri," went into distribution amidst "extremely negative" reactions on the part of its subjects, who suffered ridicule from their neighbors. One family was so affected that they considered pulling their children from the local school (ibid, 21). When the NFB assigned filmmaker Fernand Dansereau to a similar project in December 1966, he permitted each of the documentary's subjects (excluding politicians) to view the uncompleted film during production and editing and to censor objectionable material. He had not planned this process from the start, but said it happened by "accident" (ibid, 22).
In 1967, the Challenge for Change crew went to Newfoundland's Fogo Island. The decline of the fishing industry had forced 60% of the 5,000 inhabitants into poverty. They lived in ten isolated, mutually antagonistic settlements. The film crew had intended to promote social change by producing documentaries focused on specific issues (Gillespie, 24-25, Engelman, 8-10). They modified the plan because the islanders preferred short films limited to a single interview or event (Engelman, 8). The NFB's web site lists 27 Fogo Island films, ranging in length from less than seven minutes to about 28 minutes. Titles include "Discussion on Welfare," "Joe Kinsella on Education," "The Songs of Chris Cobb" and "William Wells Talks about the Island" (Series List).
The inhabitants helped select the film topics. These films had a direct impact on the Fogo Island community. For example, the people had failed to convince the provincial government to create a cooperative fish-processing plant until cabinet ministers saw the films (Engelman, 8-10).
When Sony introduced the video Porta-Pak in 1968, filmmakers Bonny Klein and Dorothy Hénaut convinced Challenge for Change to use it for community projects similar to Fogo Island. (ibid, 11-12) The NFB was at first reluctant. The new half-inch video system had its drawbacks: It could not at that time be transferred to two-inch video, it was not compatible with the 16 millimeter projectors that were standard in schools, and its low resolution confined it to a small screen. But its advantages of portability, low cost, and "simplicity of operation" opened the filmmaking process to non-filmmakers (ibid, 12).
In 1968, Hénaut and Klein went to a Montreal Slum where they trained members of the St. Jacques Citizens' Committee in video production. The committee members interviewed poor people and presented their tapes at public meetings.
From 1969 to 1970, Challenge for Change co-sponsored a video project with the University of Calgary's School of Social Welfare. In Alberta's Rosedale village, which "lacked local government, water, sewers, and gas," members of the Rosedale Citizens' Action Committee were trained "to tape interviews with residents about local problems." More than half the Rosedale residents viewed the interviews at a community center, after which they formed committees to address specific problems. This led to local efforts and negotiations with business and government resulting in a new factory "and the installation of gas and water lines" (ibid, 13).
Hénaut and Klein had expressed hopes in 1968 that community-produced video could be merged with cable TV. In 1970, Challenge for Change supplied video equipment and training to Town Talk, a civic organization in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Town Talk also obtained four hours a week on the local cable system for community programming and began cablecasting on November 9. A lack of support and charges that radicals controlled the project doomed it to failure (Engelman, 15; Gillespie, 33-34). But Hénaut said, "the lessons learned . . . are important guides for future development in the theory and practice of citizen access to media" (Gillespie, 34).
Other public access experiments soon followed. In the Lake St. John area of Quebec, "the school system assumed considerable responsibility" for community television, in which ten percent of the population became involved. Eventually, on July 16, 1971, the Canadian Radio and Television Commission required cable companies to provide public access channels (Engelman, 16).
The Dale City (Virginia) Junior Chamber of Commerce operated what a Rand report said, "appears to be the first community-operated closed-circuit television channel in the United States." In 1968, Cable TV, Incorporated, provided a channel for the public access center (Gillespie, 35-36), but poor financing, low-quality equipment and lack of a permanent studio contributed to the center's failure two years later (ibid, 36, 59).
In the 1960s and 1970s, counter-culture video collectives with names like Videofreeks, Video Free America and Global Village worked to extend the role of the underground press to new communication technologies. Michael Shamberg, Paul Ryan and other video enthusiasts co-founded a video collective called Raindance Corporation (Engelman, 24).
Paul Ryan had been a student and research assistant of Marshall McLuhan (ibid, 25), who believed modern technology, such as television, was creating a global village and challenging cultural values (Playboy). Ryan coined the term "cybernetic guerrilla warfare" to describe how the counter-culture movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s should use communication technology to get its message to the public (Engelman, 26). Despite an anti-technology bias in the counter-culture movement, people like Ryan and former Time-Life correspondent Michael Shamberg believed new technology held hope for social change (ibid, 26). According to Shamberg, "cybernetic guerrilla warfare" meant "re-structuring communications channels, not capturing existing ones" (ibid, 28).
But Shamberg preferred the term "Guerrilla Television" (the title of his 1971 book), because despite its strategies and tactics similar to warfare, guerrilla television is non-violent (Shamberg II, p. 8). He also saw Guerrilla Television as a means to break through the barriers imposed by broadcast television, which he called "beast television" (Shamberg I, p. 32). Shamberg provided the example of NBC commentator Sander Vanocur broadcasting from a platform above a crowd of demonstrators in Washington, D.C. contrasted with a Raindance video shot within the crowed, allowing people to "speak for themselves." "Guerrilla Television is grassroots television," he wrote. "It works with people, not from up above them" (Shamberg II, p. 8).
He urged combining the video Porta-Pak and cable TV to permit ordinary people to communicate a diversity of opinions to their communities (Engelman, 26-27). Shamberg wrote, "The inherent potential of information technology can restore democracy in America if people will become skilled with information tools" (ibid, 28).
According to Engelman, public access in New York was conceived in 1968 by Fred Friendly, a television advisor to the Ford Foundation and chairman of Mayor John Lindsay's Advisory Task Force on CATV and Telecommunications. He wrote a report recommending that cable companies set aside two channels the public could lease for a minor fee (ibid, 32).
Controversy peaked on July 23, 1970, just prior to the signing of a cable television franchise agreement, when actor Ossie Davis and Cliff Frazer, director of a community film workshop, criticized the agreement for not providing "sufficient participation by minorities." Others opposed the fee requirements, which were eventually dropped (ibid, 32-33).
Two cable companies signed the franchise agreement with the New York City government in July 1970 to supply cable service to Manhattan (Gillespie, 36; Engelman, 32). The agreement required that Sterling Information Services and the Teleprompter Corporation make four channels available for lease - two by the city government and two by the public. Public access programming began a year later in July 1971, with a potential audience of 80,000 - the number of cable subscribers in Manhattan (Engelman, 33). Eventually, the two public access channels were cablecasting about 200 hours of programming each week (ibid, 34).
1971 was also the year WGBH foundation in Boston began a nightly half-hour show called "Catch 44," on which they allowed any local group "to air its views free-of-charge." WGBH also encouraged participants to experiment with half-inch video equipment to produce segments for the show (ibid, 3-4).
Back in Manhattan, once the access channels were operational, programming was needed. Theadora Sklover established Open Channel to produce programs and to promote access use by others in the community. The Markle Foundation and the Stern Fund awarded grants to Open Channel to provide production facilities and to hire personnel who would help groups produce shows.
Sklover had previously lobbied the New York State Legislature to pass a bill that would create public access. "At the time she established Open Channel," she wrote that if public access "fails, if these channels are not used, or if they carry programming that no one cares about..., or if they are utilized for the entertainment of the esoteric few, then we probably will have provided the necessary fuel for those who are fighting against the opening of this medium."
Once she began facing the reality of promoting access channel use, Sklover said, "our biggest problem lies in informing the public that they can go on television.... People are used to thinking of TV as something someone else does, not as something they do." (ibid, 33).
Sklover identified constituencies, organized local cable committees and trained citizens to use video equipment. She brought in over 200 professional TV and film producers, directors, writers, camera operators, audio specialists, and lighting technicians to volunteer their expertise for public access programming. Open Channel arranged air-time for groups "ranging from the Boy Scouts to black militants, from the Museum of Modern Art to church choirs." In 1972, Sklover articulated the free speech mission of community television: "We're not here to editorialize or make decisions about what people can say over the air" (Newsweek, Engelman, 34).
Open Channel was one of five groups that facilitated public access productions (Engelman, 34). The others were John Reilley's Global Village, which became a leading supplier of documentaries; Raindance Corporation; People's Video Theater, which "captured untraditional forms of reportage and agitprop on videotape;" and the Alternative Media Center, which received $10,000 in equipment from Sterling Information Services for access producers (Engelman, 34; Gillespie, 37).
George Stoney, an American who had been "guest executive producer of Challenge for Change from 1968 to 1970," co-founded the Alternative Media Center (AMC) at New York University in 1971 with Red Burns, a Canadian filmmaker trained at the NFB. The purpose of AMC was to ensure "that new communication technologies serve the public interest" (Engelman, 18). George Stoney's experience at Challenge for Change may have been instrumental in AMC's use of video to resolve citizens' conflicts with local authorities. AMC's documentary of a neighborhood's need for a street light, for example, bears a resemblance to the Fogo Island fish-processing plant campaign mentioned earlier (ibid, 9-10; 34).
Many consider Stoney, who is today the Paulette Goddard Professor in Film at New York University (New York University), the "father of public access television in the United States" (Engelman, 19). AMC was not only instrumental in production, but also in policy-making. AMC founded the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers, which remains an important public access advocacy organization; it's "interns helped establish access centers throughout the nation;" and Stoney and Red Burns worked with FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson to create the FCC cable access requirements in 1972 (ibid, 19).
REGULATION AND FRANCHISING
Advocates for public access TV won a victory in 1972 when the FCC issued its Third Report and Order, which required all cable systems in the top 100 U.S. television markets to provide three access channels, one each for educational, local government and public use. If there was insufficient demand for three in a particular market, the cable companies could offer fewer channels, but at least one. Any group or individual wishing to use the channels was guaranteed at least five minutes free. The cable companies were also required to provide the facilities and equipment with which people could produce shows (Gillespie, 91; Hollowell vol. 3, p.103; FCC…).
In 1976 the rule was amended to include cable systems in communities with 3500 or more subscribers. The cable companies had no discretion. Midwest Video Corporation then sued the FCC on the grounds that it had overstepped its authority in requiring the access channels. The Supreme Court, in 1979, ruled in favor of Midwest (FCC…). This was a blow to supporters of community television, since the wording of many cable franchise agreements had relied on the FCC's order to create access channels in their communities (Hollowell vol.2, p. 107).
By the time of the ruling, however, some local governments had written franchise agreements requiring cable companies to provide an access channel irrespective of FCC rules. Baldwin defines a franchise as a contract between the city and a cable company that defines the conditions under which cable service will be provided to the community (Balwin, 204).
Hollowell describes examples of franchise agreements negotiated between 1978 and 1980 in New York State. In 1979, White Plains, a town of only 20,000 people at the time, required the local cable franchise to provide four access channels. In Rochester, the franchisee agreed to provide $100,000 for access production equipment and up to $83,100 a year for staff for five years. In Syracuse, the franchise required an access center and a three-person staff (Hollowell, Vol. 2, pp. 110-111).
In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, an advisory committee recommended to the city council, in September 1977, that a public access center be established as part of the new cable TV franchise agreement. The access center budget was proposed to the city council in October and $10,000 was approved for 1978. Meanwhile, Wisconsin CATV secured an agreement from the L. E. Phillips Memorial Public Library to provide studio space in its basement. Wisconsin CATV purchased and installed production equipment for access use. In January 1978, the Public Access Board convened for the first time, and in March the new Eau Claire Public Access Center began producing local shows ranging "from City Council meetings to individual poetry programs" (PACT).
While the Supreme Court's 1979 Midwest Video decision discouraged community TV supporters, the 1984 Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act restored much of what had been lost. Senator Barry Goldwater wrote the act, which allowed local governments to require "public, educational or government" (PEG) channels (Sec. 611 - Baldwin, 384-385). It also barred cable operators from exercising editorial control over content of programs carried on PEG channels and absolved them from liability for that content (Sec. 638, 639 - Baldwin, 407, 180; Roberts), which addressed the free speech mission of an institution often shrouded in controversy.
A year earlier, the Public Access Center (PAC) in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, was criticized for televising a tape produced by a man convicted of murdering a city police officer. Christian Bangert produced his tape while free on bail, claiming the local media's version of events would prevent him from getting a fair trial. On October 6, 1982, Bangert had been arguing with his girlfriend when Officer Robert Bolton responded to the domestic abuse call. In a struggle with Bangert, Bolton was fatally shot.
Bangert pleaded no-contest and the video was shown in court at his sentencing hearing and several times on PAC's cable channel. Eau Claire Police Chief James McFarlane considered the airing of the show an insult and said it "was in poor taste." Robert Shaw, a member of the City Council (which had contributed $40,000 to PAC), said that while the City Council should not decide what programs air on PAC, the facility's executive director should (Lautenshlager, 1A, 2A).
Around the country, explicit sex and promotion of Nazi groups have also appeared on PEG channels. In an effort to protect children from indecent programming, Congress passed the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992. This law gave the FCC authority to create rules requiring cable operators to prohibit certain shows. When the FCC drew up such rules, the Alliance for Community Media and others brought suit (Roberts).
In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court held the law unconstitutional, in part because it required cable operators to act on behalf of the federal government to control expression based on content. According to Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg, "Where the government thus excludes speech from a public forum on the basis of its content, the Constitution requires that the regulation be given the most exacting scrutiny" (Denver Area…).
Public access television is not at all restricted to the United States and Canada. Today, it can be found in such places as the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Denmark, Fiji, South Africa, Austria, etc. (Global Village CAT).
In Germany, Kanal Dortmund began operating in June 1985 (Small History). In Brazil, Law 8.977 of June 1, 1995, "requires cable operators to make available" six channels free "for public use, to ensure the exercise of free speech" (História; Legislação).
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Through history, the common man has struggled for equal expression in the face of greater advantage flowing to the wealthy elite. This trend has left the common man with no forum but a soapbox on a dying street corner. Today, political will and new technologies, like portable video and cable television, have combined to give the common man a new soapbox - one which, despite attempts to control it, is spreading round the world.
-- Eau Claire, Wisconsin,
April 3 to May 12, 2000
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