Is Community Access Television Still Important?

Yesterday’s business model for mass media is shrinking by the day.   It’s frightening how a small group of companies and individuals have taken over control of media, making the collapse of expanding media companies one of the major news stories of our time.  While we sit and watch this occur, it becomes all too easy to forget what it may mean to democracy and consumerism.

When AT&T Broadband acquired Comcast in 2002, it took control of well over a third (more than 21 million) cable homes.  Over twice the size of it’s rival Time Warner Cable, Comcast Corporation has grown from a single system to one of the world’s biggest communication companies.  Today it’s focused on it’s broadband cable services, commerce and of course, content.  So what does this shift in power mean for the small community access station like our local community access facility SNCAT?  Will our independent community voice be quieted in the face of competition and today’s recessionary economy?

What is this “public access” model?  It starts back in the 70’s when a national movement caught fire to be certain that cable operators would provide adequate capacity, services and facilities as a partial compensation to the community for their use of public right-of-ways.  This compensation was designed to provide access to media for the entire population, not just those who owned the cable companies.

Today’s pubic access provides a wide variety of programming – civic dialogue, cultural information, as well as civic meetings for those who cannot attend in person – or are just interested in their government’s daily discussions.  Who does it serve?  Public schools, local Chambers of Commerce, religious institutions, colleges and universities, community theaters, labor unions, veterans groups, second language communities, the disabled, politicians, and political organizations.

To find the community access station in your community, check out  The Global Village CAT, which links to 600 public and community access television Web sites worldwide.  And for more information on community media, the Alliance for Community Media, a group with the goal of educating and advocating on behalf of community media, provides news on the latest legislation affecting cable and public access.

The real question, and the purpose of this post is gaining your view.  -What do you think the future of public access television is today?  What type of programming, content development, and operations do you think it should be?  Is community access television relevant in today’s economy?  If so… how?

4 Responses to “Is Community Access Television Still Important?”

  1. MarcT. Says:

    Larry,

    I love the idea of “public access” TV, media not controlled by big corporations, where almost anyone can go in and get something on the air, no matter how hair-brained or whether they drop the occasional F-bomb. In concept. In reality, however, it’s never really worked out – the products of community access, at least in our area, are only visible if you sign up for the monopoly that is Charter. Nobody who has just network TV or satellite sees it. Until it becomes, like public radio or TV, available to all, readily accessible to the community, it’s not really community access. Putting things on the air as it is now is like writing for a magazine that’s only sold at Wal-Mart.

    In addition, many of the things that I think are great about public access TV – cheesy talk shows, B-movies, low production values – are unappealing to the majority of the TV audience. Until that changes, it will still be mostly a cult or niche product.

    Just my thoughts…

  2. Larry DeVincenzi Says:

    Thanks Marc,

    Great perspective. Know that you can also access their programming through the SNCAT website: http://sncat.org

    I think the “future of television” is on the web to a large degree. If we can leverage web streaming for programming, then we cut the Charter monopoly out of the equation. But many people don’t have fast internet access…although in time, they likely will.

    You’ve got a good point about production qualitiy too – and of course, topical matter. Those can easily be upgraded with a little work, and then maybe…just maybe…it would be more than a niche product.

    Thanks for weighing in…much appreciated.

    • Marc T. Says:

      Always enjoy a little friendly banter and discourse. I was about to reply back after your sentence about the future of TV being on the web with two words – digital divide. In my day job, I see the unwashed masses whose only connection to the Internet is via our slow, mediocre at best, publicly funded connection at the library. We serve up over 4000 hours of internet use each month at my branch alone. Not only do many people not have fast access, many people don’t have it at all. Kind of a toss-up, then, in my mind…which is less available, having the main source of public access TV be an expensive cable subscription with a big corporation, or streaming online for those who have a decent net connection? These days, those market segments are probably about of equal size? I wonder when, and if, a decent internet connection is as readily available as broadcast TV, all you need is a device, and the connection is “everywhere”. Interesting to consider…

      • Larry DeVincenzi Says:

        Google’s master plan includes free wi-fi around the world, starting with the US. That’s a plan that will meet with more lobbyists than they might want to fight. In the end, we’ll have access – and in time, perhaps a truly affordable way to capture it. The Divide will close, and user interfaces will become public – the question is, when?

        For now, pubic access is just that – the only way the public can create content for broadcast. But you’re spot on when you point out that the QUALITY of that content hasn’t been up-to-par. That could change. We could change it, AND focus the community on “green” education at the same time.


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