Access: Democracy in a Digital Age.

Hello Everyone,

For almost four years now, I have been working on a film called Access: Democracy in a Digital Age.  It is about public access television, which appear on up to four channels on cable television where regular people can produce, direct, and even star in their own shows.  The idea for public access television had it’s start from a variety of sources from Robert Flaherty to Raindance Corporation.  However, it seems that it started to take shape with a group named Challenge for Change which was started by the National Film Board of Canada and would go to various locations and teach residents how to use film equipment to tell their stories (Olson, 4).  In one of their productions, VTR-St. Jacques, Challenge for Change filmmakers along with George Stoney (who they brought from the US to work with their production teams) went to the area of St. Jacques and taught the residents how to use film equipment to promote their new clinic.  Later on, George Stoney would return to New York to teach at NYU where he, Red Burns, and others would start the Alternate Media Center.  A few years before, cable companies were looking to install cable in people’s homes, but needed more community support.  A man by the name of Fred Friendly managed to convince the cable companies in New York to give channels to be used by the public and that would mean the companies could gain more subscribers (Olson, 6).  Later on in 1972, Stoney and Burns worked with the FCC to mandate that cable companies had to pay for public access channels to be used by the general public (Olson, 8).

Since then, public access television has been a bastion of free speech on cable television.  Access’s inception, however was not without its criticisms as its promise of unfiltered free speech attracted very unpopular groups, especially the KKK.  Access was seen by some as a place where hate, sex, and other undesirable subjects could be shown to the public.  However, as I studied public access over the years, I realized that there is another dimension that is completely silenced by its seedier nature.  There was a public service aspect where local government meetings could be televised for constituents to see, coverage of the AIDS crisis in the eighties, and even shows done by the disabled community.  This is what fueled me to research a producer today who uses public access television as a community service and thus I found Andrew Baumann of New York Families for Autistic Children.  His show, Spotlight: Autism, which is on Queens Public Television, discusses how to raise autistic children successfully.

Given this pivotal point about access, it’s hard to believe why anyone would want to destroy such a valuable resource.  However, in 2005, such an attempt would be made by major phone companies such as AT&T.  During this time, cable companies were starting to break into the phone business by offering package deals.  That did not sit well phone companies so they decided to break into the cable business by also offering packages.  However, they did not want to uphold the FCC’s mandate to provide access channels to local communities, because they felt that would cut into their profits.  So they decided to take it up with the government and tried to pass a national bill lifting the mandate, but it was stalled in the House and Senate.  They then decided to pass bills state by state lifting that mandate.  They would try various methods to get their way such as wining and dining politicians.  They were successful in some states and that resulted in some public access stations being defunded, sent to remote channels, or even shut down.  One state that passed such a bill was California and I heard from one producer in Los Angeles that access there is dead.  All in all, over 100 communities were affected by those bills and its predicted that even more will be affected.

Access, through some concerned politicians and public access representatives, did try to fight back through governmental hearings.  Phone companies had to send representatives to those hearings to defend why they wrote those bills.  In one case, AT&T did not even send a representative.  However, there is another weapon in access’s arsenal that most people would not believe could work to benefit access.  That weapon is the internet.  There were some who worked in public access stations that were worried that sites like YouTube would destroy access, but they realized that was not the case.  If anything, where public access television can help a show reach a local audience, the internet can help the same show reach a global audience.

Those struggles of access are still ongoing today and will probably continue into the future.  However, it is up to local communities to support their public access stations by having more people getting trained on equipment, making their own shows, and exercising their freedom of speech.  I hope my film reaches a wide audience so that they can know what was done to their first amendment rights in the name of money.  Here is a link to a promo of that film:

Works Cited.  

Olson, W.D. Sherman (Bill).  The History of Public Access Television.  2006.


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