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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.

Public-access television has always had a low-budget, amateur reputation. Yet Rod Laughridge's alternative news program "Newsroom on Access SF" was anything but that. Though San Francisco's public-access station had its share of offbeat shows —- like the risqué DeeDeeTV, hosted by self-described "pop culture diva" Dee Dee Russell — "Newsroom" took itself seriously. Its mission, as described on its website, was to "bring community-based, community reported and produced independent news and interviews from a grassroots viewpoint — unhindered, uncensored and unaltered." 

The show, which ran for five years on Channel 29, followed a professional news format with high production values. Anchors reported headlines from behind a studio desk as video streams played in the background. Local news segments on topics like the plight of renters and live reports from homeless shelters were interspersed with commentary by the likes of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Angela Davis, and international news from Al-Jazeera. During its run, "Newsroom" was nominated for an Emmy and won several Western Access Video Excellence (WAVE) awards. "It was a full-blown news show," Laughridge recalls.

Unfortunately, "Newsroom" became a casualty of a ripple effect brought on by the passage of a bill that slashed the public-access operating budget across California. This resulted in a new provider, the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC), which had no prior experience operating public TV, taking over SF's two public-access channels. BAVC closed the production studio where "Newsroom" and other shows were produced and instituted a different model that did away with the traditional three-camera set-up. Laughridge notes that, in the old days, staff members assisted public-access producers with editing. Now "you have to pay for [BAVC's] classes to do that. There's a conflict right there," he says. These changes to the public-access model effectively "killed the idea of community" in community television, Laughridge says.

The loss of an award-winning program like "Newsroom," which provided a viable, community-based alternative to network TV news, symbolizes one of the clearest examples of what has transpired as a result of the public-access crisis. As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) noted in its 2011 media review, "State and local changes have reduced the funding and, in some cases, the prominence on the cable dial of public, educational and government channels (PEG) at a time when the need for local programming is especially urgent."

The Perils of PEG Centers

The public-access crisis in California was brought about by the 2006 passage of the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act (DIVCA), a bill that was heavily lobbied for by Comcast and AT&T. According to the telecommunications industry, DIVCA was supposed to create jobs, increase competition and serve the public interest. Its actual effect was the exact opposite — cable companies eliminated jobs and ultimately faced less competition from the defunding of community television stations. As of 2009, similar bills had been passed in 25 states, with similar results.

Since the mid-2000s, more than 100 PEG stations across the country have disappeared; cities like San Francisco and Seattle have cut as much as 85 percent of the PEG operations budget. City funding for public access has been entirely eliminated in Denver and Dallas; at least 45 such stations have closed in California since 2006-12 in Los Angeles, the nation's No. 3 media market, alone. As many as 400 PEG stations in Wisconsin, Florida, Missouri, Iowa, Georgia and Ohio are facing extinction as well.

Moreover, according to a 2010 study by the Benton Foundation, these cuts have disproportionately affected minority communities. Adding insult to injury, AT&T and other cable providers have employed what's known as "channel-slamming": listing all public-access channels on a single channel or making them accessible only in submenus, which makes finding them difficult for viewers.

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