While most of us are aware of community access television -- those cable channels that are reserved for local government and public access programming -- few people recognize what an important resource this is for communities throughout the nation. More than 3,000 Public, Educational and Governmental (PEG) cable channels are operating around the country, offering information about everything from local city council hearings to community events, and featuring community-generated programs from cooking shows to local musical talent. Particularly in underserved urban, suburban and rural communities, the PEG channels offer a vital community connection.
But these community channels are facing serious threats -- not simply from the funding crisis faced by all municipalities, but also because of a loophole in a 40-year-old federal law that could easily be closed. Not to get too deep into the legislative weeds, but the 1984 Cable Act, which governs this area, limited the use of PEG funds separate from and in addition to franchise fees to capital improvements, but not for staff or operations to run studios. As anyone who has tried to run an arts or broadcast organization knows, having the facilities is worthless without someone to operate them. Community access media is no different.
Fortunately, there is a growing movement afoot to save community access by closing this loophole. "Many organizations including the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Administrators (NATOA), the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC) and FreePress to name a few, have devoted time and effort to advocate for the continued support of community media," said Keri Stokstad, Alliance for Community Media Board Chair and Executive Director of Pasadena Media in Pasadena, California. "It is imperative that we honor the intention of the Cable Act to ensure resources are allocated to support local content creation."
In fact, beginning later this week, the Conference of Mayors, meeting in Dallas, will consider a resolution that would call on Congress to amend the Cable Act and thus assure the future of community access television. "Community access is vital to the future of towns and cities across the nation," said Michael Wassenaar, the public policy advocate for the Alliance for Community Media. "It provides a voice for millions of underserved Americans, and is critical to the free and open flow of information in our society." Hopefully, the Congress will see the wisdom in fixing the loopholes in current law and restore the promise of community access to all Americans.