Protecting the public’s channels

KUC News

Illinois Times Publishes: "Demand Public Access"

December 28, 2008

Illinois Times Letters to the Editor

Thanks for raising some awareness of channel 4 and access programming in general with your cover article this week [See "Fringe voices: The fading promise of public access TV," Dec. 11]. People may wonder what's the loss if they and PEG channels are banished to channel 99 or fade away entirely. It would be a loss. Anything that limits free public discourse, based on how much money you have, is bad for democracy.
Access programming is the last locally produced and viewed programming in a world where deregulation and consolidations have removed local voices and local community identity from the air nationwide. Commercial stations only want to sell you something; Access wants to tell you something. And that's the key difference and value. PBS is great, but it can only do so much locally as well, with only a handful of locally produced shows like Prairie Fire and Illinois Stories.
Here's something the government and FCC knew far back in the '20s and '30s, and we've forgotten: If only commercial interests are ever allowed to reach your TV, it is commercial interests that will control all the choices made for you, about what you see and know, and commercial interests will censor or ignore anything that is counter to their bottom line, even if that information is vital to you. You won't even know what you don't know, if this trend continues.
In light of this, I was really impressed by the effort Access 4 made to bring us the State Fair parade last summer: even though they had technical problems, they worked hard to bring us a local cultural event, uncensored and unfiltered. Notice that no Springfield commercial stations even bothered, since they couldn't manage to sell any advertising. Channel 20 used just a few seconds of it as backdrop for newscasts. That's telling. Commercial providers without competition are lazy and greedy.
Cable franchises were given a license to print money through serving a captive audience of subscribers, and in exchange, they promised the city some access channels to communicate locally and build community. These channels don't cost the cable company all that much to give us, compared to their many revenue streams, but they don't seem to see the service as their civic duty, more an annoyance. We're all just commoditized eyeballs to them.
As these providers move to digital instead of analog delivery systems, they gain as much as four times as many channels in the same analog space they had. With four times as many channels they can sell you and bring you advertising on, I don't think it is unreasonable to demand three or so for our local community use, in a prominent and easy-to-access location, in exchange. The cable providers like Insight and competing IPTV systems coming in with U-Verse and the like need to be held to the same standards, and if they want to access our public airwaves and bandwidth to sell us things, they need to provide more than a halfhearted effort in the presentation of the local access channels. Any new cable competitor coming into the Springfield market should not get a free pass on the access requirement, but should contribute a fair share of cash or technology to a unified fund to help keep access going, and to split these expenses evenly between all providers. And put the channels where we can see them.
Access is host to a variety of voices that could never be heard on commercial stations. You won't like all of them, but they deserve their space and serve a vital civic function. Free speech isn't free if you're charging a premium to be allowed to make it, or withholding it because it doesn't let somebody move a few more units of sham-wow towels. The city and state should be outraged and indignant that these providers are trying to weasel out of a deal made in good faith. Demand more from your TV providers and government. Demand what was promised. Three channels out of 300 is no great sacrifice to them, but it is their civic duty and a public trust.
Name withheld by request