What is public access television?
In the early days of cable television, advocates made the case for non-commercial television stations where community members could inform, entertain and debate. The Federal Communications Commission mandated in 1972 that cable companies offer channels and equipment to the public, attorney Jim Horwood said, but took a hands-off approach to content on public access stations.
While a 1979 United States Supreme Court decision overturned the FCC mandate, the 1984 Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act mandated that cable companies provide space for PEG access, an acronym for Public, Educational and Government television.
Cable companies collect fees from cable subscribers and a local board designates the PEG provider. Some cities divide the public, educational and government programming across a range of stations.
In the Roaring Fork Valley, local governments decide how to provide PEG access. In Aspen, public meetings and government announcements run on CGTV Channel 11, which GrassRoots manages from its studio and offices in the Red Brick Center for the Arts. Educational and public access programming is on GrassRoots Channel 12.
In today’s ever-changing media landscape, public access advocates say local stations are an important voice for people who don’t have access to commercial media.
“It puts more power in the hands of the community,” said Tony Shawcross, executive director of Denver Open Media (DOM), the state capital’s public access station.
Like many public access stations, DOM collects dues ($75 per year) and holds classes to teach citizens how to shoot and edit in an inexpensive digital format.
Citizen producers request certain time slots on the station, and viewers can vote on where and when the program is aired again.
GrassRoots has a similar policy. Valley residents can submit any work, and it will air twice on the station for free and in specific time slots or repeat viewing for a small fee. And citizens can hire GrassRoots staff to produce their show in the studio or on location (for about $125 for an hour-long program), which generates the bulk of the nonprofit’s revenues.
Some argue that controversial material of any kind has a home on the Internet (as opposed to community television), but Shawcross said it will be a long time before the Internet eclipses the need for public access TV. Expensive broadband and required computer skills mark a “digital divide” between those who can speak up on the Web and those who can’t, he said.
“There are still a lot of people in this country who can’t afford a $300 camcorder and a $600 computer,” Shawcross said. “People should have the ability to interact and communicate with their community, regardless of how much money they have.”
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There’s hardly any place for an average worker bee to get an affordable meal, and that concerns elected officials.