Mulling the future of public access TV

31Mar09

Since I moved to Vermont in 2002, I have been on the board of Middlebury Community Television, our local public access channel. Yesterday, the board sponsored a community media forum, where we invited members of our community to come together to discuss the role of a small public access channel in a small town today – for a frame of reference, the population of Middlebury is only 8,000, and the subscriber base for cable is even smaller than that.

As Middlebury’s resident television expert, I gave an opening talk at the forum that outlined the context of PEG (Public / Educational / Governmental) channels, the role they served in the 20th century, and the threats to that role in the new media landscape. My presentation slides are below, which should be fairly self-explanatory.

I share them here to invite a broader conversation about the potential future of PEG channels. As I see it, the transformation away from the old television model, in which the distribution bottleneck meant that the only opportunities for individuals to contribute to television as a producer were going through a PEG channel or working through the complex world of the commercial or public television industries, is good thing overall. Certainly the rise of online video, nearly ubiquitous access to the tools of production, and a multiplication of distribution avenues is a net boon for democracy and creativity.

However, PEGs traditionally have served as community media centers, local anchors in a media system that has skewed toward national and global models. While online distribution certainly allows for localism, it does not privilege that model. Additionally, the digitial divide persists, especially in a state like Vermont with one of the oldest and most rural populations, so organizations like MCTV reach citizens who will never find their way to YouTube. (For instance, I was one of the youngest people in the room yesterday and one of the few who’d ever been to Hulu, YouTube, etc…)

PEG has more competition today from other ways for consumers to become producers, making the exclusive access to the tools of production that public access used to provide less essential for many – again, this is a net gain for democracy, but a tough hit for PEG channels. Additionally, as Jonathan Nichols-Pethick discussed in his recent Flow column, regulatory and corporate shifts threaten to undermine the legal and financial basis of PEG channels.

So I pose the question: what should be the future path that PEG channels take to sustain themselves? Or is this simply an example of a business model that has outlived its necessity, suggesting that those of us involved in community media should repurpose our energies into different models and structures? Are there national/global answers here, or is it all locally-specific?

I’m eager to hear what people might have to say…

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5 Responses to “Mulling the future of public access TV”

  1. 1 Felicia

    You know the tools and format of content may be shifting and the distribution platforms expanding, but I don’t see major TV networks giving up their cable channels and TV platforms for Internet distribution only. Also, cable networks used for community purposes represent a huge amount of bandwdith. Why should we give up that bandwidth which is provided via our own public-rights of way? Maybe we want to use it in a different way. Perhaps we want to expand our models and formats. But why should we turn it back over to monopolized interests.

    And I agree with you, YouTube isn’t community media. Community media is more than a set of technologies, they are a set of practices which included open access, education, commitment to local content, connecting people, building social networks (the live ones not the techie ones). Forgetting this is often what happens when we focus on the tools and technologies rather than the mission, vision and people.

  2. 2 aswinp

    Jason, thanks for a great post! I began typing a response and realized it would be way too long for a comment. Besides, it takes the discussion in a slightly different direction. So it’s up on bollyspace now. And if you have something written – a longer, more developed version of the slides? – I’d love to read it.

  3. PEG media and public access, the primary issue of relevancy. After having served for many years as a volunteer and on the volunteer board of directors for our small county-wide PEG provider I have found a niche in which we fit nicely and what I believe is the answer to the relevancy issue. Sure, you can upload hours of raw footage of local events to YouTube (which is the argument proposed and supported by our local city council(s), aiding the potential demise of the local PEG provider Venango Video – with their lack of support). But how long will YouTube guard and offer free and unfettered access to these videos? What happens to the archives of professionally produced videos? If it were this easy to simply archive everything on-line somewhere else why do we fight to keep public libraries open? All of that text data, from books housed in libraries, was some of the first to be digitized. Why are we fighting to keep local newspapers in business? Why do we have local government when it can be run more efficiently from an off-site location via webcam or video phone in a more academic and business like format with out a ‘city hall’ that costs tax payer’s money – with the web every citizen should be able to chime in to every meeting right? Why not? We can instantly and securely poll every public case. Well, well, well, it has to everything to do with control-accuracy, filtering, providing, provisioning and the safe-keeping of materials that a community feels need to be preserved in their local history/culture in the way that seems acceptable and relevant at that time. We have determined that no one else will step up to the plate to do these things. We continually hear the argument that we are irrelevant because of the internet, but yet no one posts the video to YouTube about the recent city council meetings, who’s responsibility would that become? No one else has yet taken the time or energy to stream live community events to the web either, at the least we’ve been able to cablecast those events and record them for posterity. If it was so easy why hasn’t anyone else done it! Can the local PEG provider do these things (archive locally and upload to the web) YES! But we need the community’s support with both manpower (volunteers) and monetary support (to keep the equipment running) and pay for the internet connectivity etc. The most recent relevancy argument was that the local public school could handle all of these things with their new high-tech web studio. Just off the top of my head I question their viability during the summer-vacation months when most outdoor community or public activities occur. Have they provided this service before? Does the technology and grant monies in this new web studio compel teachers, students, parents and the school board to have the same or improved dedication to PEG programming that the current provider provides or are schools still in the business of educating our children during the day? If it were so easy for school aged kids to do this, why do we have difficulty getting them and their parents to volunteer for us for the benefit of the same cause? The school once hosted a television station, but they lost interest and funding for that – will that happen with the web studio also? With this much free student labor, our economy should be humming along brilliantly, right?
    Your local PEG provider or public access station is the custodian of, at the least, your archives – the crap no other media producer or museum wants to deal with or they may have taken it upon themselves to do so long ago!

  4. 4 D. Hill Rose

    I’m also on the Board of a local PEG station in NJ. My thinking is a PEG needs to take on the broader of role of being a conduit for sharing local news. That conduit should include iRoorters using YouTube. Limitng the conduit to just the TV channel is not the way to go.

    And it works the other way to, abbreviated versions of PEG productions (at least the best ones) should be put out on YouTube where they can be found (via key words). Also. the PEG web site should have video on demand so people can see past (&current) programs any time (no TV channel needed). That’s what my PEG is doing


  1. 1 Public access TV and U.S. desi diaspora « BollySpace 2.0

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