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The Cable TV Access Crisis

With over 100 public and educational channels disappearing since the mid-2000s, we need to have a big rethink about quality public-access TV.

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Former BAVC executive director Ken Ikeda has been quoted as saying, "We've learned the hard way what innovation in isolation can cost an organization." And Jen Gilomen, BAVC's director of public Media Strategies, admits "we've lost some people" in the transition. However, she says, the economic reality means "the whole model had to change."

Making Open Source Work for Everybody

A considerable learning curve is involved in adapting open source to public-access television, says Tony Shawcross, Executive Director of Denver Open Media (DOM). After taking over Denver's PEG channel in 2005, DOM underwent a period of trial-and-error, discovering what worked and what didn't. In 2008, DOM received a $400,000 Knight Foundation grant which allowed it to revise its model to make it more community- and user-friendly.

"We had to go through that process in order to learn what it took to make the tools work for others," he says. Overall, Shawcross says DOM isn't reaching as wide a constituency as its predecessor, but, he adds, "You can't just talk about diversity and our model without also talking about money. Dollar-for-dollar, I'd say DOM is doing better in reaching disadvantaged communities, but we'd be doing much better if we had $500,000 annually to invest in serving the communities who are most in need."

BAVC, Shawcross says, is "one of the few success stories in public access." However, he says, BAVC "are very focused on their own needs, and the development work they're doing in open source is not focused on benefitting the rest of the community as much as it would if that were a true priority for them."

 

BAVC is "one of the few success stories in public access," Shawcross says, but it's "very focused on their own needs, and the development work they're doing in open source is not focused on benefiting the rest of the community as much as it would if that were a true priority for them."

Currently, BAVC has no initiatives "specific to diversity," says Gilomen. Yet BAVC has made forays into community outreach via the Neighborhood News Network (n3), three partnership pilot programs with nonprofit centers utilizing these centers' media production facilities. Ultimately, the FCC notes, n3 "will link PEG channels to 15 community sites throughout the city, using an existing fiber network." After airing on SF Commons, these programs will be accessible to viewers as one of BAVC's online channels.

Although they've made for good PR copy on BAVC's website, the three n3 programs have thus far resulted in a total of just 77 minutes of actual on-air programming. "We need more money to expand these programs," Gilomen says, which she hopes "will seed news bureaus."

With a single-camera studio set-up, n3's no-frills production values lag behind the standard set by "Newsroom." At times, the content resembles infomercials for BAVC's community partner organizations. In the Mission District's n3 pilot episode, anchor Naya Buric, a BAVC intern, repeatedly stumbles over her words, at one point misidentifying n3 as "neighborhood network news." When asked what difference n3 will make to the community, guest Jean Morris touts the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts' programming, yet fails to mention any issues of substance affecting the neighborhood, such as gentrification and gang violence. The Bayview-Hunters Point pilot show, meanwhile, features members of the Boys and Girls Club, aged 9-12, covering the club's own Junior Giants program. The South of Market pilot fares a little better, with segments on redevelopment, a fire at a single-room occupancy hotel and the availability of bathrooms for SF's homeless population. It remains to be seen whether n3 programs can fill the role "Newsroom" used to play, much less consistently cover topics of serious concern to neighborhood residents. Willie Ratcliffe, publisher of independent African-American newspaper SF BayView, recognizes the n3 program in Bayview-Hunters Point as a positive development for a handful of young people. However, he says, "I don't see where it's gonna do too much" to address the "burning issue [of] economic survival," nor the police brutality, health issues and environmental concerns Bayview residents face daily. In his view, the smiling African-American faces pictured on BAVC's website are "just being used, really," he says.

 
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