Public Access TV: Democratic Soapbox Or Pandora's Box?

Imagine producing your own TV program. What would its subject be, and who would watch it? What could you contribute to make the television less of a "boob tube"?Portland, Seattle and Pocatello, among hundreds of cities throughout the U.S., have adopted "public access television" (PATV), which allows anyone with an idea and some gumption to use publicly-supported facilities to produce their choice of programming and air it on a specified channel. This phenomenon doesn't exist in Boise. The question is, why not?Local Void May Soon Be FilledThe existing franchise agreement between the city and the local cable company, TCI, is due for renewal by 1998, at which time the city will request PATV channels from TCI. According to city spokesperson Suzanne Burton, it's more a question of how many channels the city will receive after the ongoing negotiations are resolved in the next six to eight weeks. She says the city council "is in favor of using modern technology to preserve the public interest. ... We want to guarantee the channel will be available for the public."There's a catch: for every channel allocated to the public, TCI forfeits a channel of programming. This means loss of revenue generated by the programming on that channel. Also, TCI can no longer offer that station to viewers, which subtracts from their services' bulk of network content.So why should TCI voluntarily sacrifice revenue for the benefit of the public? Because their ability to secure a decent franchise agreement, in length of term and programming range, allows them more financial security. Also, it looks good for their company and gives their audience, unlike non-subscribers and satellite dish owners, exclusive viewing of the access channel.There's also the issue of how many -- if more than one -- of these channels will be allocated as PEG (public education and government) channels, as opposed to open-forum "true" PATV. The tricky negotiations seem a slack tightrope to walk, but that balancing act is now up to that sometimes-tipsy acrobat, Mayor Coles, and his appointed negotiator, City Budget Manager Alec Andrus.Andrus, in his self-professed struggle to understand all the technical and legal aspects of the deal, has hired a consultant to assist in the research. The financial backing for facilities, equipment and staffing poses a vital concern, since recent property tax caps have put severe limits on the city's spending. Andrus expects allowances for more than one channel to form part of the final deal, to be activated on command by City Council after the first channel becomes full. TCI turned down their initial proposal, which included a five-access-channel maximum. Andrus estimates two or three channels maximum will be devoted to public access in the final deal. He says the problem of "what exactly defines programming" remains puzzling, since it varies in the stations he has investigated in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Minneapolis; Phoenix; and Sacramento, Calif.; among many others across the nation. "Could a scrolling reader-board be considered 'active' enough to fulfill community needs?" "When is a channel full?" -- these are questions the negotiators currently wrestle with. Andrus says the amount of time dedicated to government and educational programming will have to be determined later, "triggered" by City Council. Future meetings will probably also trigger the popular censorship and location-of-station issues, all after the channel(s) are secured by the initial negotiations.Westpark TCI manager Dan Clark adds a few interesting observations about PATV, not necessarily stemming from financial reasoning: "I think there's a great deal of variety (on TV right now). ... Most public access is extremely poor quality and very self-indulgent. Some do provide city council and city zoning meetings. It can be a tool of democracy." In reference to the past failure of PATV in the area he asks, "If we're providing this and people aren't using it, is it in the public's best interest?"Like Dorothy Without a HomeLately, the mayor's office and TCI have both been slow to return calls to answer questions about the PATV issue. Some are annoyed with this lack of communication with the public they were hired to serve. According to mass media expert Lark Corbeil, "It ought to be public knowledge. ... There's been no public input on what is a huge public issue." Corbeil has organized small meetings with other video producers who also wonder how they can encourage a true access channel. Josh Graham, American Civil Liberties Union Student Chapter vice president and treasurer, may propose a forum on the Boise State University campus to discuss the issue as a matter of freedom of speech. His requests for information at the mayor's office also went unanswered for some time until a few days ago, when he heard "not much was happening."Some people express concern that City Hall's possible decision to base public access facilities at BSU will create a conflict of interest for all parties involved. The students use the editing suites and equipment enough to severely limit the amount of use by the public. Like Pocatello PATV Channel 12's final home, the alternative plan would house PATV studios within a city government building.University Executive Assistant John Franden firmly states that BSU has "no interest" in hosting a public station. KBSU, University Television Productions (UTP) and the Simplot-Micron Center all report to him. With record enrollment numbers, the facilities are "absolutely overwhelmed," he says. The educational programming BSU hosts on WBS Channel 39 already reaches over 10,000 satellite customers. He fears the BSU staff would be overworked on the same salary. Franden cites the university's primary role as one of education.BSU professor Robert Rudd, on the other hand, thinks the university is a "perfectly appropriate, logical" place for a public access station -- provided they find additional facilities. He describes PATV as "a wonderful community service ... for the furtherance of democracy and contribution of dialogue," adding, "The appropriate response of speech which offends is more speech." Rudd opposes all censorship of speech, language and political views, and worries that extreme examples may be used to justify the killing of public access.According to Dr. Peter Lutze, a mass communication professor and UTP adviser, "The more people making images, the better." He sees PATV as "wonderful part of democracy" in that it's "direct, not filtered through institutions." He admits, however, that his involvement with UTP puts him in an awkward position to rally for PATV. Like Franden, Lutze is wary about the possibility of using university facilities for a public PATV facility because it might demand additional attention and hours from the faculty, and also because of the additional strain on equipment.Meanwhile, discouraged students have organized groups such as "Dead Eight Productions"to share their video productions in public places. One viewing session, "Sketches," met last spring in the now-defunct coffee house DreamWalker.Variations of AccessA person can produce their own show right now -- if they're willing and able to do it professionally through what's known as "leased access." Of course, this requires generating enough cash flow to meet crew, camera, lighting, talent and post-production costs. The producer actually purchases air time from the cable station and, in turn, can sell commercial time during the show. Several TV shows in the area have proved successful at this strategy, but the lifestyle certainly doesn't suit everybody.The logistical requirements of leased access affect the quantity and variety of local programs significantly. Unless you're of Ross Perot-calibre wealth, your show must earn its keep as a business. The audience polls determine how seriously your program expects to succeed, making the popularity of the subject a predisposing issue. In Idaho, a hunting/fishing show would probably have a much better shot at attracting supporting advertisers than, say, a book review session. So whether your show could even air or not, according to the leased access system in Boise now, would hinge on its successfulness as a money-maker and your ability as a businessperson. Considering the extensive amount of time, start-up cost and risk involved, the idea doesn't ring up very high on the appeal-o-meter. The alternative, PATV, is where a city and the cable company establish a production facility with at least one channel for public utilization. This shouldn't be confused with local origination (LO) channels, where the cable company basically owns and runs the facilities. Century Communications, for example, operates Cable Access Channel 13 in Coeur d'Alene, in reality an LO channel. The amount of time devoted to public input there is limited to a few hours daily, and the cable company decides what can be shown.A true PATV channel maintains an open-door policy and encourages community members to participate. To this end, of course, it needs financing. One method designates pass-through fees, extra money tacked onto cable bills, provide for much of the cost of the equipment. These pass-through fees amount to mere cents on each household's bill, which, when compounded, add up to quite a sum. A community can raise additional funding through pledges and other tax-deductible donation incentives. This measure would vary with need and cost-effectiveness of the fund raising. As specified by the terms of the particular franchise agreement, the city can also kick in extra funding. In the case of Pocatello's Channel 12, also known as Region 12, the cable subscribers pay a meager 30 cents a month for their public access, which is added to the $130,000 a year allocated in the city's general revenue fund. Pocatello's subscribers support the station with this extra city money now that the station has proved its use to the city for years, but this isn't necessary for the survival of the channel. They also recently received a grant from TCI to upgrade some outdated equipment. Nearby communities receiving cable can also be encouraged to join the system, creating more revenue plus a wider range of involvement.Experienced videographers and editors volunteer to teach citizens how to use and maintain the equipment. Region 12, like many other stations, maintains a hired programming director. This measure keeps the station running smoothly, much like a hired manager at a food co-op.Then the production starts. Everybody locks in on their scripts and shoots away. Granted, most of the shows won't match modern TV's high standards of production, but that's perfectly fine -- the public understands, or should, that not everyone can produce like Larry King, Oprah Winfrey or Terry Gilliam.In fact, by definition, PATV programming must remain amateur. The basic FCC rules for PATV situations require the programs not be used for profit. That's right -- no annoying advertisements or product endorsements. This implication also keeps financial backers from influencing the programming for their benefit.PATV and the First AmendmentPATV can't be censored in any way by the station or cable company except in cases of extreme obscenity. George Carlin's "seven dirty words you can't say on TV" have officially been cut to four, so potty-mouths must get creative. Also prohibited: extreme violence and pornography, but people's imaginations and the First Amendment allow for plenty of other options. How deeply a program can explore controversial subjects depends on "community standards," a term reflecting the extent to which PATV freedoms are acceptable to the community. This can pose a challenge to a PATV channel, according to Region 12's ex-programming director, Mitch Popa. "Community Standards are hard to define. ... It all lies in the information." One of Region 12's major challenges, for example, arrived when a local Klu Klux Klan group wanted to air a show which degraded blacks and Jews. The local PATV subcommittee members decided to allow the program. Then they decided to air a self-produced program directly following, with another side to the KKK point of view. This method of presenting different aspects on the same subject creates dialogue and discourages PATV as a hate-group propaganda tool.The programming must also derive from a local source. In application to the previous circumstance, an out-of-county KKK or anti-hate group couldn't broadcast their opinions on Pocatello's PATV station. This keeps the interests local, best serving the public which pays for the service.The programs run on a first come, first serve basis, just like public health clinics. Viewers get the full spectrum of human interest stories alongside do-it-yourself "hard news" -- warts and all. This concept gives the stereotypical term "liberal media" a gargantuan new meaning: liberal in the effect of almost-no-holds-barred freedom of information. In that respect the Internet equates to public access, except for one factor: people don't need an expensive computer to participate in PATV, just a TV and cable hookup.The production facilities would most likely consist of several basic pieces of equipment: cameras, which could be checked out on a first-come sign-up basis; tripods and external audio gear, for a higher picture quality; and a simple editing system. The system would most likely be "straight-cut," for simplicity's sake, in addition to its relative inexpensiveness. "Straight-cut" means no fancy transitions between images, only direct change, with occasional effects such as dissolves and wipes. The absence of fancy editing, in effect, also diminishes the possibilities of agenda-tailored images.Once upon a time (or, "Finally, a voice for Joe Shmo Public")A version of public access "was" offered to Boiseans in 1986 under the city's past franchise deal with the original cable company, United Cable Television. It existed for a few years, floundered, then failed. Connection 27, co-operated by BSU and United Cable Television, didn't last long because of lack of public interest. The station aired two local music shows, some other special interest shows, and a few discussion programs. Among these were debates and coverage of local and state races that both network and public TV either were not interested in covering or overlooked.Ted Eisile worked at Connection 27, watching as the few, mostly poorly-produced shows trickled in slowly and unsteadily. "We were filling a niche then," he says. "It was valuable ... but it may not exist anymore."When TCI bought the cable franchise a few years later, they yanked the local origination station altogether and set up access, again through BSU, on Channel 10 -- remembered by many for its varied UTP programming. One could flip on the channel at any time and encounter cavemen, cowboys, comedy or whatever else the minds of the students could expel. TCI still had the final say concerning what could or couldn't be shown, much to the dismay of more than a few daring college students. For example, the company refused to air Heather Holland's ethnographic study on skateboarders because one skater pretended to be a Satanist. Some question how much that action would have affected not-so-naive or impressionable TV-watchers, but no matter; the decision rested with TCI.The censorship issue became the least of the matter when TCI then yanked the channel from UTP and sold it to FOX News. As the franchising authority, the City of Boise received numerous questioning phone calls concerning that decision. TCI had every right to act as they did, since PATV never made it into the original contract with the city, but it gave the cable company a bad reputation among student producers. The students' shows, once available for viewing at prime time, are now found solely on Saturdays and Sundays at 6 p.m. on WBS 39, a station seen only by satellite subscribers. UTP programs are preempted by BSU's Knowledge Network as well. That program, managed by Eisile, records and broadcasts BSU classes for the general education of the public and people enrolled in them long distance.Mitch Butler, an independent video producer, computer animator, and former president of the Idaho Film and Video Association, says PATV "is a good thing for news. Everyone (local news-providers) has the same stories." This broadening the horizons of information distribution seems like one easily-defendable building block for a more publicly-involved democracy. News providers, often criticized for agenda-setting, framing or packaging of stories and constantly shortening sound bites, can, with PATV, be circumvented by Jo Shmo Public and his/her camera. Of course, Mr./Ms. Shmo may have their own agenda to push, but at least it's a not-for-profit perspective -- commercial use of PATV is prohibited by FCC regulations.One point pertinent to PATV's role in democracy, however, is the price of a cable subscription. Many people might have a problem paying another monthly bill for a public service, especially to a privately-owned company. A publicly-owned local "broadcast" station should be considered as a possibility for guaranteeing access to anyone with a TV.The Future of Public AccessDoes Boise want to interface with what for so long has been largely a one-way consummation? The slew of network shows like "Cops" and "America's Funniest Home Videos" gives evidence that more eager amateur camera-operators roam the streets looking for action than ever before. At least half-a-dozen magazines can be found in any newsstand directly for independent video producers, showcasing the latest products of the desktop video-editing systems and miniature audio/video recorders. In comparison to 1986, when PATV initially petered out, much more of the public now is not only prepared for but already sympathizes with the video medium. University student and veteran of Connection 27 Susan Randall understands the roller coaster of public access' past. "It's the kind of thing that takes a long time to get going," she says. Pocatello's station, after all, started out in a closet in the old public library.Tiny handycams and relatively inexpensive desktop editing systems are now integrated into our modern culture. We have the new technology and know how to use it. Furthermore, a person's level of wealth or education stands irrelevant to their input on a PATV channel because the equipment is as public as a library. As long as a person signs up to use the equipment and has gone through the training process, they have permission to access the technology. This, of course, means members also become responsible for the maintenance of the facility. In the stations inquired, that hasn't posed any problems.PBS director of programming Ron Pisaneschi is interested in the outcome of the PATV dilemma, but emphasizes PBS' purpose as something completely different. "PBS was never intended for free access in the public interest," he says, although PBS does pick up some of the missing local programming with shows such as "Dialogue" and "Outdoor Idaho. Dialogue", with studio debates in Boise, Pocatello and Moscow, delivers a broad cross-section of debates and opinions. These shows are intended for the entire state, and therefore offer the Boise area neither the focus nor variety of issues that would be presented on PATV. Still, PBS may play a role in training citizens to use equipment, or simply set an example for production techniques.The arguments for adopting PATV in the area, in terms of its conceptual function as a democratic tool, overwhelm any notions of another nationally-syndicated PBS-type channel. How much more news can C-Span 2 or Fox News provide viewers? None, if you seek local information, views and art. CNN, the networks and the Internet entertain global and national issues. The local news market, if seemingly saturated in both print and TV, could benefit from the spicy diversity of uncensored, non-commercially-driven input of PATV. Boise's latest shooting spree caught us with no widespread forum for public discourse other than what the news providers distributed. A PATV station would have offered an alternative.This brings up the issue that while access provides a soapbox for some, it opens Pandora's Box for others. Producers could freely criticize the local, state and federal governments' actions. As long as no slander or libel takes place, however, shouldn't expression of unlike views remain inherent in a democratic society?Local arts, entertainment and sports could gain a new forum and be enhanced through PATV coverage. Local video-makers could enjoy an outlet for their creativity. Educational opportunities abound, not only in the arts, but in shows geared toward environmental, technological, home- and property-improvement, etc. A great show, sponsored by the IRS, might be "Tax Tips".Keep a lookout for the results of the renegotiation. Those who want to get involved should call the city council and express their desire for a true public access channel with no government censorship. With 67,000 TCI cable subscribers in the Treasure Valley, PATV could be nurtured into a serious media source, which merits the serious attention of the community. Volunteers' perspectives on political and social issues may very well provide the lubrication our democratic engine craves.J.D. Hunter is a regular contributor to "Boise Weekly."


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