March 26, 2009

Access Denied to Cable Viewers?

Catching school board meetings or locally produced talk shows on cable access systems will be more difficult for channel surfers due to changes in laws in several states.

Public, educational and government stations, also know as PEGs, are fixtures on basic cable packages, made available as a public service requirement of the Communications Act of 1934.

PEG stations televise town hall meetings, school plays and run quirky, locally produced talk shows with “Wayne’s World”-style theatrics.

Yet California and Illinois are among 20 states that enacted laws allowing cable companies to end their support for PEG studio facilities, equipment and staff, and giving control of programming to state agencies rather than local communities.

When California’s Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act took effect Jan. 1, Los Angeles closed 14 studios.

Ron Cooper, treasurer of the Alliance for Community Media, a nationwide PEG coalition, told the Los Angeles Times: “For the city of Los Angeles, the City of Angels, the media capital of the world to say there is no room for public access, I don’t even know how to describe it.”

Other telecommunications companies such as Verizon, Qwest and Comcast are also moving into the cable market, but AT&T is the leader. According the Los Angeles Times, the company spent $22 million to lobby through PEG changes in California’s legislature, including $100,000 to former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, the act’s author.

But some friction persists.

On the Pacifica’s “Democracy Now!”, Barbara Popovic, executive director of the Chicago Access Corporation, accused AT&T of deliberately making PEGs harder to search on their U-Verse system.

Her assertion was supported by a video demonstration of a one minute and five seconds-long process required to change from a commercial channel to U-Verse’s Channel 99, where AT&T assigns all PEGs.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is investigating cities’ complaints of AT&T’s not obeying state franchising law.

On Feb. 23, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution asking Congress to initiate reform for more local control of PEGs and amend the Communications Act.

AccessSF, the city’s PEG, is losing $120,000 in funding, money which The Public Press reports could pay to keep the studio’s lights and air conditioning running.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, the resolution’s sponsor, said in a rally: “The working class has very little access because of the hacking away of public access. It completely exacerbates class lines.”

The digital divide deepens the problem. Speaking at the San Francisco rally, Tracy Rosenberg, who leads the Oakland-based group Media Alliance, said: “For those who aren’t linked in to technology, public access is all they have.”

–T.J. Johnston/Newsdesk.org

Sources:

“Doors may soon close on local public access television”
The Public Press, March 5, 2009

“AT&T accused of discrimination against local public access”
Democracy Now!, March 9, 2009

“FCC asked to probe AT&T treatment of public access channels”
ARS Technica, Feb. 2, 2009

“Media groups say AT&T discriminates against local channels; File petition with FCC today”
Alliance for Community Media, Jan. 30, 2009

“Is public access TV dead?”
Los Angeles Times, Jan. 8, 2009

“Cable flips channel on public access TV”
Los Angeles Times, Jan. 5, 2009

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