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A snowy transmission: Public access television threatened

Just weeks after Patsy Robles and her 15-year-old daughter stepped into the studio of San Antonio’s Channel 20 during the summer of 2004 they were on TV, a channel-surf away from the major networks.

Motivated by a desire to “counteract negative media stereotypes of youth,” Robles, an accountant, learned to produce television. Soon, belly dancing, 10-year-old mariachi players and 16-year-old news anchors describing the impact of Hurricane Katrina on young people could be seen by anybody with a basic subscription to Time-Warner cable in the San Antonio area.

This was public access television.

For almost two years their show, “411,” appeared four times a month. However, in late 2006, the studio shut down, and the channel went dark.

“I was totally shocked,” said Robles, who said she was given no warning of the move. “I didn’t even know if the channel was coming back.”

What happened to her and other access producers in San Antonio was a harbinger of things to come in others towns and cities where cable lines lay.

Last year, 21 production studios in Indiana and Michigan were closed. Funding for public access programming is expected to dry up entirely during the next five years in Ohio, Florida, Missouri and Wisconsin, according to the Alliance for Community Media, an advocacy group that organizes public access channels across the country.

The closings resulted from new statewide franchise contracts, which eliminated the longtime obligations of cable providers to local communities in 17 states.

Public access television has existed in the past because of “its close connection to the local community,” said Anthony Riddle, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media.

Established by Congress in 1973, the Public, Educational and Governmental channels were a trade-off for company use of public land to run cables and make a profit. They would be available for local groups and individual citizens to use in whatever manner they wished--sort of a modern-day electronic public sphere.

Now, “the telecommunications companies are not connected to the public that they serve,” said Riddle. “There is no accountability on a state level.”

Instead of having to negotiate new agreements with thousands of municipalities across the country, the cable and telephone industries heavily lobbied state legislatures for permission to strike the simpler statewide agreements. Local communities had no leverage.

As a consequence, said Riddle, cable companies are out to make new rules or “take an interpretation of the rules to shut down an access center.”

Sena Fitzmaurice, a spokeswoman for the cable company Comcast, which has the Indiana franchise, noted that the law now mandates that access channels have to be available only on the most widely available tier of service.

Passed in a special legislative session in 2006, the new contract with the state of Texas made Time-Warner responsible only for providing the signal and distribution. It did not include funding the nonprofit organizations that often ran all aspects of the public access channel, including training for citizens and the costs of some equipment and studio time. The city was supposed to organize the channel instead of the cable company.

So the amateur producers of San Antonio were responsible for delivering broadcasts in “transmission-ready” format, but there was no place to produce shows.

Patsy Robles was one of the few able to survive the shutdown of the public access studio in 2006. She set up a makeshift studio in the back room of her office and posted content through YouTube, Blip.tv and a blog.

It wasn’t the same. Although site visits were up and comments streamed in from around the world, rates of San Antonio call-ins were down. She was losing her local audience.

When the channel reappeared six months later, Robles returned to the air, one of the few programs producing original material. But city officials had placed restrictions on the available bandwidth, and she could offer her show only once a month. Recently, that was increased to two shows per month.

When the Midpeninsula Community Media Center in Palo Alto County, Calif.,was moved to Channel 99 by AT&T, executive director Annie Folger became concerned that her shows would lose viewers and relevance to the local community.

AT&T’s new video service, called U-verse, was discriminating against her channel, she said.

Appearing like streaming video, the channel takes 45 to 90 seconds to load; picture quality is 75 percent worse; and there is no closed captioning, Folger testified in a Congressional hearing in January.

“This is a flawed technology offering us second-class accommodation,” she said. Folger has called it the equivalent of a cable ghetto.

In the Congressional testimony AT&T said that improvements were forthcoming.

A diverse ethnic population, Native Americans and military veterans produce programming. “These are people who don’t see themselves on the broadcast channels,” said Folger.

In Indiana, a local military care group recently asked Sheriff David Lain if it could appear on his show, “Behind the Star.” Lain had to say no, because the new Comcast franchise agreement had shut down the studio.

He had no program to air and no platform to offer the group.

That is a “great organization clamoring for a way to get the word out, and cable TV is the perfect way to do that,” he said. “Right now they can’t.”

Now, his Web site thanks viewers for their loyalty to “Behind the Star,” and he is determined to find the finances and the equipment to produce his six-year-old public affairs program.

The budget at the sheriff’s office does not cover television outreach programs. The community supports him. Not a week has gone by this year without someone commenting on the absence of his show.

“I’ve got some contacts, and I’ll see what I can do,” said Lain.

E-mail: tmd2115@columbia.edu