Community Media Outlets Under Attack In The States

(This is a guest post by Beth McConnell, Executive Director of the Media & Democracy Coalition)

Behind the stories of murder that dominate many television news broadcasts are real people whose lives have been shattered. A program airing on the nation’s newest public access television station, PhillyCAM, tells those stories in a way traditional media rarely does. 

One recent episode of the program, Unsolved Philadelphia, showed the prayers, song and poems shared at what would have been the 16th birthday party for I’riana DeJesus, who was murdered at the age of 5, and whose killer is still on the loose. Host Paul Smith urged viewers who may have information on the whereabouts of a man linked to the murder to contact the show, providing local residents that may be afraid to speak to police – common in communities beset by violence and fear of retaliation – a way to help solve this heinous crime. The show’s producer, Grady Jones of Life Media Studios, told me that since the series began airing in December 2010, they’ve already received tips about some of the murders profiled, which police are now investigating. “We don’t make any money from this show, it actually costs us money,” said Jones. “I grew up in Philadelphia, and many of these communities affected are where I used to live and frequent. They mourn losses every single day. If it wasn’t for PhillyCAM, these stories wouldn’t be told.” 

More than 3,000 Public, Educational and Government access (PEG) channels across the nation provide a vital platform for community-produced video from full coverage of local town halls, to student-produced shows about topics that matter to their campus, to city council meetings and debates. PEG stations feature programming that may not be considered commercially profitable, or may be considered too “local” for news outlets that serve millions of viewers or readers, or too controversial for giving voice to political views not considered mainstream. But the programming on these stations is critical in creating an engaged, informed and active community.

Unfortunately, PEG stations are under attack in states across the nation. At the urging of cable and phone companies, more than 17 states passed legislation in recent years that strip their municipalities of the right to negotiate franchising agreements that led to the creation of PEG stations. According to a recent report by the Alliance for Community Media, these state laws have devastated community media stations across the country. 20% of the stations surveyed in those states reported funding decreases that have led to cuts in service. Respondents from 17 communities in 8 different states report loss of PEG facilities. Comcast used state franchise law as the excuse to close all of its PEG facilities in northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan in September of 2007. This is despite very healthy profits from major telecommunications companies like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, even during the recession. PEG stations that survived have also reported being mistreated by the cable providers, such as by making it difficult for viewers to find the channels and access the programming.

Just last week, New Jersey's Assembly passed a bill that would have threatened PEG stations, but was amended to protect the facilities due to significant community backlash. Members of the Colorado legislature recently announced their intention to re-vive a state franchising bill that could also threaten PEG stations. A House Committee in Indiana passed a bill last week that will eliminate certain franchise fees paid by video service providers to local governments. These fees are often used to support PEG stations.

Under the guise of creating competition in the video subscription market, these bills often eliminate or reduce consumer protections, local control, resources for community programming, and standards for build-out of networks to un-served communities. And there is evidence the hoped-for “competition” isn’t benefitting consumers. A 2008 survey by the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) showed that of 14 states that had adopted similar laws, cable rates had not decreased, and consumer complaints remained high. 

Where is the public benefit in state legislation that weakens consumer protections, threatens community programming, does nothing to lower cable rates or improve customer service?

Federal legislation will soon be re-introduced in the 112th Congress to address some of the mistreatment of PEG stations by video service providers, and state legislators can help by urging their federal Representatives to co-sponsor the bill, the Community Access Preservation Act. State legislators should also consider taking a second look at existing state video franchising legislation, and propose changes to the laws to un-do the harm to PEG stations. Finally, state legislators should look closely at any bills that purport to create “competition” in the video marketplace, but that actually just strip communities of important consumer protections and opportunities for freedom of expression.