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WI: State bills may turn off public access TV

By saveaccess
Created 04/30/2007 - 7:12am

from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [1]

State bills may turn off public access TV
Stations could be forced to close or cut programs

Posted: April 28, 2007

West Allis - For 25 years, the West Allis Community Media Center's public access Channel 14 has been a window on the world of this Milwaukee County city.

One can debate the merits of its programming, which these days runs the gamut from polka music and political forums to a manly men's cooking show that's gaining a cult following in the state.

But Channel 14 has accomplished what federal officials envisioned - a kind of democratization of the airwaves - when they began requiring cable companies to set aside PEG channels, for public, educational and government programming, in the 1970s.

Now, at least 25 stations in Wisconsin could be forced to close or dramatically cut programming - West Allis' sooner than most - as a result of legislation nearing passage in Madison.

The state bills, and others around the country, have prompted a debate over the role of public access TV - and whether media companies should still be required to fund it - at a time when anyone with a video camera and an Internet connection can promote his or her views and interests online.

"PEG channels are going to have to adjust to the biggest competitive force today, and that is the Internet," said Tom Still, who as president of the Wisconsin Technology Council has questioned the need for industry funding of programming that's not government-related.

"I wouldn't say it's made them obsolete, but it's probably changed their mission and their market a bit."

Public access advocates insist there is a market for both, that local access stations must find a way to incorporate new media in the same way newspapers and commercial television are doing. But curtailing their funding, they say, will only make that transition more difficult.

"All forms of media have their own values," said Tony Riddle, president of the Washington-based Alliance for Community Media.

"You don't see ABC getting rid of its broadcasting affiliates because of the Internet," he said. "It seems wrong for the public to be ghettoized into separate forms of communication when none of the players are doing that."
Control could shift

The state Legislature is considering two bills that would shift control over cable TV and video broadcast franchises from local governments to the state.

Proponents of the bills, pushed primarily by telecommunications giant AT&T, say they will increase competition and benefit consumers.

But the bills also would eliminate within three years the PEG fees collected on cable bills, which are passed on to municipalities to fund public access. A handful of stations - including the one in West Allis, where PEG fees account for three-fourths of its $200,000 annual budget - would lose theirs immediately because the three-year grace period affects only those with existing contracts, not those that had expired and were in negotiations.

Stations funded entirely by franchise fees, which cable companies pay for leasing the public right of way, won't be affected. But those dependent primarily on PEG fees could be devastated.

"We would have to close our doors," said Mary Shanahan-Spanic, who runs the West Allis center, where last year hundreds of volunteers produced 201 original programs on topics from the arts and conspiracy theories to the annual Western Days parade.

The West Allis center, at 7210 W. Greenfield Ave., embodies much of what was envisioned by early proponents of public access. It lends equipment and offers training and channel space to anyone for anything, as long as programs comply with libel and obscenity laws.

It has significant community buy-in, evidenced by the wide array of organizations that use it and by its ability to raise $50,000 a year from private donors.

Its programming, which has won state and national awards, is local, and the station has also served as a training ground for young professionals.

"We are very focused on empowering the community to do this for themselves," Shanahan-Spanic said. "We've had people go on to work at the Nashville Network, MTV, VH1 and the local channels."
Age of the Internet

Mary Cardona, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of PEG Channels, said public access proponents acknowledge the importance of the Internet and that some stations are already there. In Madison and Milwaukee, for example, local Common Council meetings, taped by the government-access channels, are also posted online.

She likes to point out that many now online, including the producers of "Chad Vader," the smash YouTube hit out of Madison, cut their teeth in public access.

But the Internet has its own limitations, she said. The production tends to be more solitary, she said, and the result more dispersed than a spot on the cable dial.

Of programming on the Web, she said, "you have to know it's there. You have to seek it out. It's very selective."

Cardona and others say the focus on the Internet and types of programming obscure an underlying principle of public access.

It isn't what's on public access channels that matters, they say, but that the space exists for public use as the public sees fit.

"I find it sad that I have to explain that the country needs space where anyone can speak over the television medium that isn't controlled by large corporations," Cardona said.

"If we do not keep this terrain, then we have totally lost control of the message."

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