Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Legislation may affect future of public-access television
A SECOND STORY AT:
Proposed Legislation May Affect Future of Public-Access Television
Published: November 8, 2005
By FELICIA R. LEE
The New York Times
One recent afternoon, in a small brownstone dwarfed by the shine and
sprawl of the nearby Time Warner Center in Midtown Manhattan, Joel
Igartua got ready for his close-up. The 18-year-old high school senior
was honing his interview skills and mastering video camera basics to
make public service announcements for Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a
public-access television station.
"People should have the right to make their own shows," Mr. Igartua
said. "TV is powerful. Everyone watches TV."
For every hour of "Desperate Housewives" on ABC, the nation's 3,000
public-access television channels present dozens of hours of local
school board meetings, Little League games and religious services. Not
to mention programs like "The Great Grown-Up Spelling Bee," a spelling
bee for adults that raises money for the Kalamazoo, Mich., public
library, and "Fruta Extrena," a bilingual gay talk show in New York
Now, though, the future of the channels deemed "electronic soapboxes"
in 1972 by the Federal Communications Commission is uncertain, as
proposed legislation about how the telecommunications industry is
regulated winds its way through Congress.
The main concern for public-access advocates is that the law preserve
the ability of municipalities to negotiate franchise agreements for
cable television. Those agreements pay for the public-access programs
and allow municipalities to determine how many channels they want and
allow public access programmers like Manhattan Neighborhood Network to
train nonprofit groups to produce their own shows. The proposed
legislation varies in its specifics, but several bills aim to allow
more video-services competition - easing the way for telephone
companies to compete for the franchises - and minimize regulations for
franchises. Advocates of the legislation say that the fears of the
demise of public access are exaggerated and that some local control of
franchises is written into the bills.
Currently, most cable franchise agreements include a franchise fee paid
by cable providers for using city property, putting millions of dollars
in city coffers, some of which can be used for public-access channels.
Some agreements also provide explicit financing and support for the
community's use of the cable system. Public, educational and government
- or "PEG" - access channels tend to be uneven in their quality and
production values. But, say advocates, these shows are not meant to
sell products or just entertain, but to mirror community interests and
"There has to be some portion of the system open to public use, which
has public revenue supporting it," Anthony T. Riddle, executive
director of the Washington-based Alliance for Community Media, said of
his advocacy of public access. The group represents 1,000 media centers
Yesterday, to take advantage of election eve, thousands of
public-access channels nationwide were scheduled to show one minute of
video snow simultaneously to protest the legislative proposals,
beginning at 9 p.m., Eastern time. The alliance is joined by the
National League of Cities and the United States Conference of Mayors in
opposing any bill that would strip local control of cable franchises.
Public-access advocates are appealing to politicians and to the public
to hear their case.
The cable business has $60 billion in revenue annually, and last year
cable operators paid $2.4 billion in franchise fees, according to the
National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the cable industry's
principal trade association.
Under federal law, cities can collect a franchise fee that is up to 5
percent of the gross revenue generated from the delivery of cable
With 33,000 local cable franchises across the country, telephone
companies are now pressuring the federal government for speedier access
to franchises and fewer restrictions. In Texas
recently, SBC and Verizon got that state to set up a uniform
clearing-house approach, meaning that these companies can apply to the
state for franchises and do not have to negotiate agreements with each
"One of the big questions is, Is there a place for public interest in
our media policy, or is it one size fits all?" said Rick Junger, the
director of community media at Manhattan Neighborhood Network.
The National Cable and Telecommunications Association has not weighed
in on any specifics of the proposed laws because it is too early, said
a spokesman for the association, Rob Stoddard. The organization's
concern, he said, is that any new rules on franchises apply to all
video providers, whether they are traditional cable providers or
What advocates hope is not lost in all the fights over politics and
technology is their idea of public access as a First Amendment right,
especially for people and towns underrepresented on television. The
local franchise agreements, they said, have provided a tried and true
mechanism to handle customer complaints, determine local programming
needs and deliver the money to produce those programs.
Mr. Riddle said that the groups he represents produced 20,000 hours of
new programs a week, using 1.2 million volunteers and 250,000 community
groups in any given year. That's more programming, he added, than the
broadcast networks combined.
"It's where we turn for a sense of self," Laurie Cirivello, executive
director of the Community Media Center of Santa Rosa, said of the four
access channels in her Northern California community of 150,000. The
channels feature locally produced shows like "Mrs. Twizzleton's Magic
Garden," a children's program with a local psychologist as host, and a
number of Spanish-language shows.
Ms. Cirivello noted that Santa Rosa, near San Francisco, has no local
Legislators say their bills are needed because the current
telecommunication laws did not foresee the Internet explosion, or new
video technology like telephone service over the Internet, and
The Video Choice Act, introduced in the House by Marsha Blackburn,
Republican of Tennessee
has been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The
Senate version, introduced by Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon
and Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia
geo>, has been referred to the Senate Commerce, Science and
Transportation Committee. In the Senate, a bill introduced by John
Ensign, Republican of Nevada
which covers a broader range of telecommunications issues, is known as
the Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act.
"This legislation allows consumers - not government bureaucrats - to
choose the best services at the best prices," Senator Ensign said in an
e-mail message. The Ensign bill, now also in the Senate Commerce,
Science and Transportation Committee, has drawn the most fire from
opponents, who say the House and Senate versions of the Video Choice
Act are more flexible in their language.
"It is just flat wrong to say we eliminate public, educational and
government channels," Senator Ensign said. "Our bill specifically
requires video providers to carry up to four PEG channels."
He said his bill did not eliminate the 5 percent franchise fee. It
extends it, he said, to new video providers and also has an entire
section protecting the ability of state and local governments to manage
their rights of way.
Representative Blackburn said that her bill was intended to create more
affordable video options and more diversity in programming. "My bill
seeks to keep limitations and regulations to a minimum in order to
encourage an active, growing marketplace rather than the atrophied one
we have right now," she said in an e-mail message.
But public-access advocates argue that these are empty words and that
questions remain, including those concerning how franchise fees are
defined and who oversees the collection of right-of-way revenue.
Senator Ensign's aides acknowledged that the definition of "revenue"
for franchise fees was still debatable. Whether revenue from purchases
on a home shopping channel should be included, as they currently are,
is one question that has to be answered, an aide to Senator Ensign
said. The Ensign bill also caps the number of access channels at four
in each municipality, although some big cities already have more. New
York City, for example, has nine PEG channels.
Ralph Engelman, the chairman of the journalism department at Long
Island University's Brooklyn campus, said, "The whole concept is a
somewhat radical, democratic vision - giving ordinary citizens access
to the most persuasive communications medium that exists." He added:
"It's incredibly diverse, and it's very raw. It's probably a better
reflection of what our society is than mainstream television."
The personalities from public access sometimes even make it onto
mainstream television. RuPaul, the cross-dressing entertainer, kicked
off his career in 1982 on a weekly public-access show in Atlanta called
"The American Music Show."
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