Public Access Television: An Ongoing Effort to Restrict Your Free Speech
By Duke Gomez-Schempp
The People’s Press Project
Public access television was very popular in the 1970’s because the FCC required that cable companies provide public use of their commercial expansion of communication services into the households of America. Many of us do not remember that communication is a basic human right that we all have and that the FCC has been the gate keeper of our free speech rights. Over the years many of our communication rights have been bought and sold to the highest bidder without our knowledge. What has happened in Fargo-Moorhead is that the local cable monopoly, Cable One came in and negotiated Franchise Agreements with the cities and offered them 5% of their gross subscriber receipts for the use of city infrastructure to bring their cable product into the households of their subscribers. The cable operators are required by the FCC to do this, however they have lobbied hard to remove restrictions to make more money for their corporations. What they have been able to do is have both Moorhead and Fargo assume they can basically get a big check and have little accountability to the community that they are serving.
The city of Fargo receives over a million dollars a year for allowing Cable One to provide cable to Fargo residents. Moorhead receives nearly a half of a million dollars from two cable operators: Cable One and Midcontinent. The citizens of both communities are unaware of this cash cow and very unaware that these funds should benefit the community and give them access to producing their own media on cable access television.
Fargo and Moorhead have been very crafty at is using millions to pad their pockets and provide very little access to the public while producing their own city meeting coverage in a self serving way to control what is seen and keep the citizens in the dark when it comes to news coverage of city government.
From the nearly half million dollars paid to the city of Moorhead through cable operator Franchise Agreements to ensure quality community access of Public, Educational, and Government programming (PEG), few local programming options exist. Much smaller communities like Bismarck, ND, Detroit Lakes, MN and Fergus Falls, MN have historically developed local access and media training centers for their community members, leaving Moorhead and Fargo in the technological dust. Fargo is much worse at being stewards of over a million dollars a year in Franchise Fees. The City of Fargo films and broadcasts governmental meetings held in Fargo City Hall, however there is a lack of outreach, training and is not any equipment or a studio available for the public to use for media access and production.
Despite the growing need for local avenues for independent media and communication to the general public, especially disenfranchised communities, the stewards of the Cable Franchise Fees in the Fargo and Moorhead community have made no inroads to offer effective, well staffed, well equipped avenues for the general public to receive training, or to create and broadcast their own educational, public programming, even though they have the funding to do so.
Both Fargo and Moorhead will be soon be negotiating new Franchise Agreements with Cable Operators and will ensure that they get their 5% of the subscribers fees. Both cities have shown little interest in allocating any substantial amounts of this funding to directly benefit the people in the community. Many city officials claim that with the popularity of the Internet, cell phones and satellite television, cable access is of little interest to the community. City leaders choose to block funding that would provide an avenue to use the cable airwaves for public use. This is a smokescreen to simply allow city officials to keep a revenue stream coming in that was designated for the community. Their interest is to divert the funds to whatever the city government decides without the input of the people of the community.
The City of Fargo and Moorhead have zero outreach efforts to inform the community that these funds are received for the community and the community has an opportunity to express their free speech rights. Fargo will continue to use a small portion of the million dollars to fund their Public Relations department and broadcast whatever meetings are held in city hall. After spending that minimal amount, the rest of the funds go into the city budget and are used for whatever the city desires. Moorhead allocated a dismal amount of the half million dollars of Cable Franchise Fees to an inadequate and mismanaged public access organization and absorbs the rest of the money for the city coffer, while claiming to be transparent and accountable by airing City Council meetings and other committee meetings held at city hall on a remote channel on cable.
Fargo and Moorhead are not alone in their intentional dismantling of cable access. Public access is in danger across the country. Bill Rosendahl, Los Angeles city council member explained the purpose of public access to communities and his investment as a government leader.
“Public access was anybody from the public have[ing] access to the airwaves. I truly believe that public access is an electronic soapbox. It is a free expression first amendment right. And, the cable company has an obligation to provide that channel.”
“That’s what local origination of public access offered. Where people’s opportunity to express themselves” was not trespassed, adding that “people would watch it because they want to be informed, they want to be educated. They want to connect themselves to the world they are in. I think there is a crying need out there for real substantive public affairs programming which unfortunately, doesn’t exist.”
Edging public officials to do more, Rosendahl urged:
“Some of us, like me, who happen now to be an elected official at this point in my life, strongly believe that monies should be used for public, government and educational access. No matter what.”
Ed Asner, Former President of the Screen Actors Guild had this to say:
“This is the Internet in terms of TV. Without this public access to TV, there is no Internet for television.”
Leslie Dutton from Full Disclosure Television says:
“Public access stations are growing dark across the nation. And the loss is alarming!”
Vin DiBona, Executive Producer of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” challenged with this:
“Public access really is the only venue for..training, for forums on discussion on both sides of an issue, that evolve and are not just a 25 second sound bite on the local news at six o’clock at night. “
Bill Shikler, Producer of “Media Watch on Hunger and Poverty” explains:
“There are big telecommunications companies that want to take over the bandwidth that public access stations are carried on. Because, they can take those frequencies and use them to sell high speed internet, broadband internet, which is a is a very lucrative business. So now, they’ve gone to a state level and they’ve gone to the states and say ‘You don’t really need public access. We’ll give you a bunch of money, give us the bandwidth’. That’s where the battle is going on now.”
That battle is happening in our community. Our local access is nearly non existent. And what we do have is severely limited. With all the millions being poured into local “free speech” rights public access, the issues of access should be minimal. However, the reality is that local communities don’t always know how these monies are being administered, as Pasty Robles from San Antonio Public Access explains:
“I think the sad part about it is that there is money coming in. That money is still being paid to the city. But they are not using it the way that we feel it should be used to benefit the entire community”.
And that worry extends to this region. Because if we can’t control our local airwaves, we are unable to represent the voices of our community. And frequently, those voices are drowned out.
Elaine Alston, producer of “Dreams” said “We need public access. Whatever you have to do, do it. To make sure that public access is here for the people!”
And there remains a great concern for maintaining that public trust for information locally.
Ron Kaye, former editor of the Los Angeles Times (1984-2008) posited “[W]e can, with any kind of support, bring television and open it up to neighborhoods councils, homeowner groups, and activists of all sorts of people who are involved in the community to tell the story that the officials don’t want them to know”.
And, Robert Sherretta, producer of ”International Investor” agrees saying “I worry that when we’re seeing closures of public access it’s just a referen..especially by local governments, to shut down dissent and criticism of what they’re doing and what their activities are.”
This is a strong lesson locally and one we should heed if we are to maintain strong local engagement in democracy and a commitment to transparency in government. As an elderly Stanley Sheinbaum an ACLU First Amendment Advocate warns:
“The public, if they are to vote properly, have to be kept informed. So, public access is critical.”
So, how sacred is Public Access television to our community and to our democracy? According to Scott Minerd, Chief Investment Officer of the Guggenheim Partners, it’s imperative.
“Without free speech we have no hope of having our democracy survive in the long term. And so, I think this mission to restore the access to direct access television here in Los Angeles and to assure the freedom of direct access television throughout the United States is the very bedrock and foundation of maintaining our democracy and the freedom of our citizens.”
The power of our human right of communication is in our hands, the community. Our local public access stewards are failing their mission to provide access to the community. We must get comfortable watch-dogging government entities and report to the public about their activities. We must become an engaged community, and demand that our free speech rights and access to public access be preserved. Without this access, our inactivity is seen as giving our consent.