The Cable TV Access Crisis
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A bill currently before the House of Representatives called the Community Access Preservation, or CAP, Act, could prevent hundreds of funding-challenged PEG stations nationwide from going belly up. The bill limits channel-slamming and would amend an FCC ruling that PEG support may be used only for facilities and equipment, and not for operating expenses. Even if the CAP Act passes, it "won't solve all of public-access TV's problems," says Media Alliance executive director Tracy Rosenberg. For one thing, the CAP Act falls short of mandating a higher percentage of cable franchise fees — an estimated $10 million to $12 million in SF — for PEG operators. Increasing this revenue, however, could allow PEG stations not only to survive, but to thrive.
An Open-Source Solution?
One possible solution for financially challenged PEG stations is the development of open-source or user-modifiable software — a model currently being developed in Denver, San Francisco and several other cities. In just its second year of operating SF Commons — SF's public-access station — BAVC is already attracting wider attention. In June 2011, the organization was singled out for praise by the FCC, which called SF Commons one of the "most promising templates for the future of public-access centers."
Open source offers built-in internet connectivity and is less financially constraining than the old public-access model, requiring less equipment and less staff. Instead of reels of videotape or DVDs, programs are saved as MPEG files. Editing workstations aren't bulky analog machines but svelte Macintosh computers equipped with Final Cut Pro editing software.
Yet open source isn't a perfect solution. In the short-term, moving to an open-source model for public access may actually widen the gap affecting underserved and less technologically literate demographics. "Seniors, disabled, low-income adults," Rosenberg charges, "[are] being left off the train."
Adapting open source to a public-access medium also limits the potential of users to acquire skills needed for some television jobs and puts more emphasis on offsite production, which in turn reduces the level of interaction between programmers. "They want you to edit at home," Laughridge says. "There's the digital divide right there: Not everyone has a computer or camera."
Virtual Community vs. Actual Community
Laughridge is one of several veteran public-access programmers who complain about displacement under BAVC.
Ellison Horne, a former president of The San Francisco Community Television Corporation (SFCTC)'s board of directors, says BAVC made an "aggressive move toward a virtual studio as opposed to what we had before, which was a community media center." This resulted, he says, in a lack of community engagement.
Since BAVC's takeover of Channel 29, "a very different culture has emerged" in San Francisco public access, says documentary filmmaker Kevin Epps, who began his career in public access. That culture is more conservative, tech-savvy, youth-oriented and, in Horne's words, "elitist."
Steve Zeltzer, a labor activist and public-access producer, charges the BAVC takeover has resulted in "the privatization of public access."
Ken Johnson, who worked for a stint as a producer-director at local station KQED after getting his start on Channel 29, credits public-access TV with helping him stay off the streets and out of jail. Johnson says he often rounded up street people as volunteers to help him produce his show on veterans' issues. But volunteers are no longer welcome under BAVC's operatorship.
Instead of a community-supportive environment, Johnson says, "They have this robotic thing when you do it like that, you lose something."
BAVC staff are quick to characterize the problems with public-access programmers as simply a case of the old guard being resistant to change. "You had a lot of producers used to doing the same routine for X amount of years," says Andy Kawanami, SF Commons' community manager. He concedes the transition to open source wasn't completely smooth, but says things "have settled down quite a bit" since.