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April 04 2013


The Role of Public Access TV in Covering Local Government, Debates

In recent years, "public service media" has emerged as the term describing all that's right with public media, community media, and non-profit journalism, and how those three sectors could be collaborating to function more perfectly in a new telecommunications-reformed promised land. Largely overlooked in these future of media discussions are two types of simple, non-edited televised event recordings -- local government meetings and local election debates coverage.

'united by function, not divided by platform'

Josh Stearns and Candace Clement, in their MediaShift post last October, "The Case for Unity Among Non-Profit, Community, and Public Media," quote from their August 2012 Free Press report, "Greater than the Sum":

"We need to begin constructing a new identity for non-profit journalism and media in America, one that illustrates the central role these institutions play in our nation. In addition, we must examine the media policies that have for too long served to divide non-profit media by platform instead of connecting them around purpose."

In so doing they point to the 2010 paper by Ellen Goodman and Anne Chen, "Modeling Policy For New Public Service Media Networks":

"While public media policy has traditionally been structured around specific platforms -- specifically radio and television stations -- Goodman and Chen call for a 'functions'-based approach that emphasizes: infrastructure, creation, curation and connection." Various non-profit media and journalism institutions can and should be united by function, not divided by platform, Stearns and Clement write.

In their paper's section on the creation function (what they call the "what" of public service media content), Goodman and Chen describe valid rationales for public subsidies of various types of program content. Although they mention news and documentaries, oddly, they don't include gavel-to-gavel government meetings coverage and local elections debate coverage in their examples. These two program types, essential pillars for citizen education and civic engagement, are also not discussed in the Free Press report. These content types must not be left out of forward-looking public service media public policy discussions.

Gavel-to-Gavel Local Government Meeting Coverage

In 2010 I collected data on U.S. cities' gavel-to-gavel televised government meetings coverage, reporting on it in a post for the New America Foundation, "How many cities have access TV? More than you might think." Of the 276 U.S. cities then over 100,000 in population:

256 of them -- 93 percent -- televise the routine meetings of one or more of their governmental bodies. All but two of these cities use cable television to do so ... Of the 254 largest cities cablecasting their government meetings, 197 of them (78 percent) do so on channels that they themselves manage. Non-profit organizations manage those channels in 20 of those cities, while the cable companies manage them in 28.

There are of course many municipalities below 100,000 in population who also televise their government meetings, although assuredly many more do not. The Goodman/Chen four-layer model could productively be applied to help further such program availability.

Local Elections Televised Debates

I've been maintaining an online directory of PEG access television providers' websites since 2000. Every federal election season since 2006 I've surfed these providers' websites (initially about 800 of them), noting which ones were promoting local election coverage programs. In 2010 I emailed all PEG access providers for whom I could locate email addresses, asking them, among other things, if they produced any type of local elections coverage. The results of these combined efforts are seen in this map -- at least 327 PEG access providers produce some sort of local elections coverage.

By 2012, my directory's listings -- now a Google Doc spreadsheet, U.S. Community Access TV Providers -- had grown too numerous (over 2,000 providers) to completely search manually as I had before. Instead, using an offline website reading tool, I tried downloading the contents of these providers' websites (twice -- once in the first week of October, once in the last). While I was at it, I performed the same operation for PBS stations' websites.

(This is an imperfect data collection technique -- at least the way I employed it. This tool allows you to set the number of levels deep as well as a maximum number of files you wish to download. Though I arbitrarily chose three levels and 300 files, many sites would hang during download, so I'd have to manually skip to the next site.)

Then I searched for the string "debate" among all those downloaded files, individually inspecting each returned result. I'm still in the process of compiling this incompletely gathered data, but so far, using this method I've identified 27 PEG access providers and 66 PBS stations who produced or carried 2012 local election debate coverage. They're shown in these four maps: 1) County/Municipality Elections; 2) State Legislature Elections; 3) Congressional Elections, and 4) Statewide Elections. (An additional eight commercial broadcast stations whose debates were carried on C-SPAN in October are also included here).


These maps are prominently labeled "data incomplete." In addition to the limitation described above, there are three necessary data sets which remain to be collected and analyzed: debate coverage by 1) commercial broadcast TV stations, 2) cable company-managed channels, and 3) statewide cable public affairs networks' channels.

Therefore, this data is still too preliminary to draw almost any conclusions. However, it does seem reasonable to assume that more complete data would bear out at least one picture here: As with gavel-to-gavel local government meeting coverage, county and municipal election debate coverage is probably more commonly being produced and carried by PEG access television providers than other television outlets.

Once a more complete picture has been developed, I propose that it would be worthwhile to apply the Goodman/Chen four-layer functional model (infrastructure, creation, curation, and connection) in an effort to further promote this essential component of a public service media network.

In January this year the Alliance for Community Media published results of a local elections coverage survey it conducted among its PEG access provider members. The responses the ACM received -- especially to its questions about the barriers to producing such programming -- would be an excellent place to start the collaborative conversation about how the existing 1) infrastructures of public media and community media could work together to 2) create and 3) curate more of this programming, in ways which would enhance viewer 4) connections -- that is, citizen engagement.

Examining and exploring these pathways to collaborations would be a fruitful step towards crafting new public policies that would create a more robust and provably useful public service media system.

Chopping Wood, Carrying Water

In examining policies and practices for televising local meetings and debates, I'm reminded of the Zen proverb, "Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water." Televising local government meetings and local election debates, like chopping wood and carrying water, are mundane but essential activities. Come the Enlightenment (a new Telecommunications Act rewrite?) these mundane activities will still need to be carried out. If anything, we are not chopping enough wood, or carrying enough water, as it it.

Anyone with information about additional TV stations that carried election debate coverage in 2012 is kindly asked to email that information to the author, rob@communitymediadatabase.org, for inclusion in this ongoing study. Thank you.

Rob McCausland has been involved in community access television since 1979, when he co-founded the Boston Cable Access Television Coalition, which advocated for access provisions in Boston's first cable franchise. He has served as Studio and Cablecast Manager for Boston Neighborhood Network, Executive Director for Beverly Community Access Media, and most recently, as Director of Information and Organizing Services for the Alliance for Community Media. Currently he is developer of Community Media Database, a reference website launched in 2011 with pilot support from The Benton Foundation and the New America Foundation.

November 20 2010


How Public Access TV Evolved into Community Media Centers

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

Around the country, community media centers are launching exciting new collaborations with local organizations, neighborhood activists, schools, and media outlets to create online, hyperlocal citizen journalism sites. These projects are re-imagining how Public, Educational and Governmental (PEG) access TV stations -- which are funded through regional negotiations with companies like Comcast -- can serve their communities' information needs in the digital age.

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These innovators are using digital and cable access technology to generate civic awareness and create diverse local media -- a function that's increasingly crucial as traditional journalism institutions face their greatest challenges to sustainability.

These centers provide much more than public access to cable television, having fully embraced computer-based production and broadband technology to augment their media training programs. As a result, innovative experiments in community news production are replacing the tired old "Wayne's World" stereotype of public access. This article spotlights five examples of how PEG access organizations are using funds tied to cable television as the bearing wall to support experiments in inclusive community news production.

Deepening Citizen Reporting

The Grand Rapids Community Media Center (GRCMC) launched the Rapidian in 2009 in partnership with the Knight Foundation and the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. At this year's Alliance for Community Media Conference, Laurie Cirivello, executive director of GRCMC, explained how her access center spent nine months generating community interest and support before launching the community news project:

This project is greatly a result of social media and community coming together. We consider ourselves a host of the Rapidian and a welcomer. We created the platform in response to what people were asking for and looking for. We held a series of town hall meetings. We had meetings where we invited our commercial media folks to discuss how this could help with what they're doing.

Out of these meetings, GRCMC staff decided to develop four neighborhood news bureaus, but they realized that they needed to connect with the community physically before the neighborhood would buy into the community news platform online.

The Rapidian and NeighborMedia at Cambridge Community Television (where I used to work) are two examples of citizen journalism projects that are leading the way in community news innovation. The good news is now other PEG access TV organizations in Philadelphia, Sacramento, and Reading and elsewhere, are launching their own neighborhood news initiatives.

Opening up Election Coverage

PEG access is often the best place on TV for residents to access local election coverage. Take the Center for Media and Democracy in Burlington, VT, which operates the city's government access TV channel. The station has been at the forefront of innovative uses of cable access TV and the web. For example, earlier this year I wrote about how viewers can access on-demand "clickable meeting agendas" via the Center's website.

During this past election, Channel 17 created Live Vermont Election Coverage, a website where residents could livestream the results and interact via CoveritLive. The Center also posted videos featuring local voices from exit polls produced by community members. When combined with new online tools, community media centers can use their TV channels to make local content more accessible and more relevant to people's everyday lives.

Hosting a Media Commons

The Bay Area Video Coalition(BAVC) operates San Francisco's Public Access TV station. Along with offering media production classes and youth media programs to Bay Area residents, BAVC has found new ways to bring cable access into the digital age.

BAVC.gifBAVC's public access website at SF.commons.tv is powered by MIRO Community, a project of the Participatory Culture Foundation. This interactive video platform gives BAVC producers the ability to share their local media alongside any other video available online using embeddable RSS feeds. For example, SF.commons.tv has a San Francisco Bay Area channel featuring local news from KQED, a public media organization in Northern California.

Creating a Civic Media Memory Bank

Access Humboldt in Eureka, California believes that broadband is the future of community media. They have established partnerships with other community organizations to develop a broadband network for the rural community they serve. Their "Digital Redwoods" project is working to cultivate a "sustainable media ecosystem." As they explain:

Local PEG Network assets are deployed and interconnected with wireless transmission networks that reach remote locations for broadcast radio, TV and Internet, and for mobile users' broadband needs. This 'digital ecology' approach takes a long term view for the growth of communication networks both on the ground and overhead, engaging local resources with any media necessary to help meet comprehensive community needs and interests for public health and safety, for lifelong learning and for civic engagement.

Access Humboldt is building on their broadband infrastructure through a partnership with the Internet Archive. The two organizations created the Community Media Collection to encourage public access centers to upload their community-produced content. Thousands of hours of local cable access programming from across the country can be viewed at archive.org.

Amplifying Minority Perspectives

After 27 years of trying to launch a Public Access TV station in Philadelphia, PhillyCam began cablecasting on October 23, 2009. A year later, it received an award from J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism to launch Drop Zone, a
"youth-led investigation into why young men of color leave school," in partnership with the Voice of Philadelphia website and YESPhilly youth training organization."

In an announcement about the project, PhillyCam partner Voice of Philadelphia said: "The effort, which will involve local youth affiliated with YESPhilly, will investigate why young men of color leave school. Aside from reporting, the project will allow VoP to engage in one of its other long-term goals - the training of citizen journalists." Drop Zone builds on PEG access TV's long-standing mission to ensure access to diverse voices in local communities.

Community Media's New Context

These innovative community news projects show the potential of PEG access TV stations to re-imagine themselves as community media centers in the digital age. However, all is not rosy for public access TV. TechFlash recently reported that SCAN TV in Seattle will shut its doors to the public at the end of the year. In the process, SCAN TV joins a long list of community media centers that have been negatively affected by an economy in crisis and by legislation that has shifted local control of media to the state over the past five years.

These cutbacks are happening at a moment when community media centers are serving vital local needs. After all, it has been proven that many support what a recent report by Blair Levin calls "a sensible approach to broadband adoption" by providing the public with media and digital literacy training.

Free Press and other public interest media organizations have called for an expanded public media system to provide funding and support for community news projects, which model an open and democratic form of Public Media 2.0. PubCamps across the country -- such as the one this weekend -- are beginning to set the stage for collaboration between public and community media. To thrive, the PEG access community desperately needs a broadband policy framework that supports such pioneering local media initiatives.

Colin Rhinesmith is a doctoral student and Information in Society Fellow at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an Affiliate with the New America Foundation's Media Policy Initiative.

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

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