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Local Public Access TV Under Attack From Trio of Congressional Bills

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Local public access television across the United States is being threatened by legislation introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Critics say the bills could eliminate the only source of funding public access providers receive and would take away control from local governments. We speak with Anthony Riddle of the Alliance for Community Media and George Stoney, who many consider the father of public access. [includes rush transcript]

Local public access television across the United States is being threatened by legislation introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Proponents of the legislation claim that the bills will breakdown monopolies in the cable industry and open the door to increased competition. But critics say the trio of Congressional bills will lead to the elimination of public access television in this country.

Senate Bill 1504–the Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act–was introduced in July by Republican Senators John Ensign of Nevada and John McCain of Arizona. According to the bill, the act would “eliminate government managed competition of existing communication service” and “provide parity between functionally equivalent services.”

Essentially, the legislation would eliminate a requirement for telecommunications companies to pay franchise fees to local municipalities. These fees are required as compensation to the community for use of the public right of way through which the companies route cables and utilities. By eliminating the franchise fees, the bill will eliminate the only source of funding that the public access provider receives.

The bills would also replace local cable franchises with national franchises and the concern is that this will take control and oversight away from local government as well as cut channel capacity for public, educational and governmental access channels or PEGs.

  • Anthony Riddle, Executive Director of the Alliance for Community Media.
  • George Stoney, longtime media activist. His career has spanned more than half a century. He has produced, written and directed more than 50 films and television series. Much of his work has focused on issues of racial justice, social responsibility, community, and freedom of speech. An early advocate of video as a tool for social change, Stoney is also the founder and administrator of public access programs throughout the United States and Canada. He is currently a professor of film and television at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Anthony Riddle. He is Executive Director of the Alliance for Community Media which is an umbrella of more than 1,000 PEGs and community media centers throughout the country. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Amy, Juan, thank you for have me on.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you very much for being with us in your busy schedule as you travel the country. Anthony, can you explain what does public access face right now?

ANTHONY RIDDLE: I think this is the biggest threat that we have ever had since public access was created over 30 years ago. The bills that are out there right now, in the name of competition, actually are there to allow the telephone companies to come in and compete with the cable companies, but would in effect create a duopoly. If you think about the idea of your home having two wires coming into it, and that all information going into and out of the home are on those two wires, and that they’re controlled by a couple of companies, maybe three companies, four, that have all of the same interests, then you’re looking at something that’s going to alter the face of our society as a whole, not just media. And it’s not science fiction. This is actually on the verge of happening. I think the interesting story here is that there has been no story here. And we expect there to be no story because the companies that should be reporting on this and bringing information to the public so that they can participate in the debate are not reporting it, because they have a financial interest in it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So — and, in essence, what you are talking about two wires, you are talking about the cable line and the telephone line.


JUAN GONZALEZ: And what you are saying then that in this particular bunch of bills, the cable companies and the telecommunications companies, which are sometimes in competition or battling each other are united in being able to rid the necessity of having to provide some kind of financing for public access.

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Yeah. You know, as you laid out very well in the beginning, public access, educational access, governmental access, PEG, has been paid for by the fact that these folks that are making billions of dollars, billions of dollars, billion dollars in New York City alone, they have to pay the city for the use of the public right of way. That’s the land that all of the people in the city own. They run their cables or their fibers or put their poles on the land, and that’s what they have had to pay both money in support of PEG operations and bandwidth, which I think is at least as important. Anybody within the sound of my voice or watching this program right now is likely watching it on a public access channel in their community. The way these bills are set up, the resources for these channels would disappear, be severely reduced, and the likelihood of Democracy Now! being brought you to in this way would be very low.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And about how much do they — for instance, you used to run the public access here in New York City in Manhattan. What — Time Warner runs the cable system. What were they paying per month in terms of franchise fees for public access?

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Well, we used to like to characterize it as less than the cost of a can of Coca-Cola per subscriber per month. It’s about $3.60 — $3.50 a month — a year, excuse me, for complete support of PEG.

AMY GOODMAN: $3.60 a year.

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Yeah. $3.50 a year per subscriber.

AMY GOODMAN: Went to public access.


AMY GOODMAN: And so, that created a big pool for public access, and now that is threatened?

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Oh, absolutely. And this is what we find, you know, if you just want to increase competition and have the telephone companies be able to compete with the cable companies, there’s absolutely no reason to diminish what you owe the public. They owe the public this. This is our land. This is the land that the people of the city had the wherewithal to buy and maintain over all of these years, and there’s a great profit.

It’s just like if somebody was going to set up a lemonade stand at the park. You know, the city might think this is a good thing, but, of course, they would have to pay a franchise in order to do that, and the city might decide that we don’t want a hundred lemonade stands, because that will change the way that the park operates.

Right now, the way some of these bills are written, the city is taken absolutely out of the equation. Any kind of community control is taken out of the equation, and in fact, one of the bills even proposes not to allow class action suits in the case where whole areas are discriminated against by the video provider, and the city can’t represent you by — according to this bill, and the state has diminished power, and I’m not making this up, a congressional staffer told me that if you have a problem with your cable service, that they expect you to call the FCC.

AMY GOODMAN: In Washington, D.C.

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Yes. Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what are you telling people to do? This is an extremely complicated series of bills to even be able to talk about it or write a letter about it.

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Well, our members of the Alliance, along with a lot of the members of media reform, have been really, really active on this. We’ve got a lot going. There’s been several dozen cities have passed resolutions against these bills. We want you to call your local officials. You don’t have to make it complicated. Express your support for PEG. Say that PEG needs to have resources under these bills, and that the Alliance for Community Media represents those interests in this conversation. Furthermore, we have information on our website, www.alliancecm, as in community media dot org. Or you can go to a couple of our member sites, or CAN TV in Chicago or CCTV in Salem, Oregon. They all have good materials.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, will also link to them. And I want to say, we did call Verizon, one of their top lobbyists, to ask for them to come on to represent the other point of view. And they said these bills are not going to pass. We don’t need to comment.

ANTHONY RIDDLE: If these bills are not going to pass, I want to know why Verizon, SBC, Comcast, Time Warner, all of these companies have people down there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even during the recess. Everywhere I go — we’re an office of one or two people —everywhere I go, I’m following on their trail. I’m having to undo the kind of propaganda that they’re putting out about the lack of necessity for our public space. We think that there ought to be 10% of all the bandwidth that goes through public land, air or water, ought be set aside for the public.

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony Riddle is Executive Director of the Alliance for Community Media, which is the umbrella of 1,000 public access TV stations around the country. When we come back, we’ll be joined by George Stoney, considered the father of public access in this country.


AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to long-time media activist, professor, filmmaker, George Stoney. His career has spanned more than half a century. He has produced, written and directed more than 50 films and TV series, many of them focusing on issues of social justice. An early advocate of video as a tool for social change, George Stoney is also the founder and administrator of public access programs throughout the United States and Canada. Currently a professor of film and television at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: So, as you hear about and are deeply involved with this latest threat to public access, can you give us a sense, since many people don’t even know what those odd channels are on their cable, what they are, where they come from?

GEORGE STONEY: Well, they were allocated in the early franchises to give the public a chance to speak. At that time we were thinking of just local. We didn’t know how important it could be nationally. And so, for a long time, we advocated the use of the local channels, because they were cut out in the other media, but as we worked on it, we saw that we have two kinds of communities. We have the community where we live, and we have a community of interest, which links me in Manhattan with the people in Seattle, Washington, and all over the country. And that’s why we have so many programs now on the access channels that are — go beyond the local community. And that’s why we have Democracy Now!, and I’m very pleased that we do.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you know, a couple of weeks ago I was in Washington at the United Church of Christ’s annual luncheon of the office of communications. And they were giving an award to a young television reporter for her work in consumer reporting. She told an interesting story that stuck in my mind.

She said that her father used to run a television station in West Virginia — and that’s how she got into broadcasting to begin with, learning from her father — but that her father then running a commercial TV station in West Virginia in the 1950s would begin — would use his television station, since there was a high unemployment rate, to have members of the community come in and on television give their resume of why — what their skills were, why someone should hire them. And she said her father was responding to a community need of a high unemployment rate.

And I thought to myself, it’s amazing how television started, just as how cable started with all of this promise that the public would be empowered, that there would be more opportunities for people to be heard, and what has happened over the years. I mean, your thoughts on this continued — every new medium seems to promise all of these possibilities, as the internet has done also, but yet when these companies grab a hold of them, what they — how they distort and destroy the potential and the possibilities that they have.

GEORGE STONEY: Well, we look on cable as a way of encouraging public action, not just access. Social change comes with a combination of use of media and people getting out on the streets or getting involved. And we find that if people make programs together and put them on the local channel, that gets them involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your earliest work, and how this all came into being, your earliest documentaries?

GEORGE STONEY: Well, I was — I started in the state of Georgia with a little educational program, and before long I found I was making films for people who should be making them themselves, but at that time, as you know, it was film and it was much more complicated. Now, with this user-friendly equipment, there’s no reason why people should not make their own programs. And now we have an outlet with public access.

AMY GOODMAN: How does Canada compare?

GEORGE STONEY: I was in Canada for two years working with the National Film Board of Canada, and, of course, we have nothing compared with the Film Board of Canada. They have — they continue to do amazing work. And I just — every once in a while, I compare what we’re doing and PBS is doing and CPB is doing with what the Film Board is still doing, and I’m ashamed.

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