Is our oasis of local voices being drained by official neglect?

[Editor's Note: Following is an expanded version of Wally Bowen's commentary on Asheville's public access TV channel in the July 28 issue of Mountain Xpress.]

If you were to create a map of all public-access TV channels in the United States, shaded green to burnt orange to signify funding and longevity, the South would look like the Sahara desert.

Acknowledging this geographical reality is critical to understanding the crossroads Asheville’s public-access channel now faces, and what we can do to save this oasis for local voices and digital-media training.

Unfortunately, Nelda Holder’s commentary ["We Are Not TV," June 23 Xpress] missed this reality. By comparing our struggle for public-access TV with the success of Middlebury (Vt.) Community TV, where she once worked, Holder gives a fatalistic view of what she calls our collective “failure to create true community television.”

She’s correct that some key local “officials and administrators seemed leery of creating a television channel open to people of any and all persuasions.

And she is on the mark in citing vocal opponents – such as Chad Nesbitt and Don Yelton – who channeled fears to local residents that “all manner of vile material, including outright pornography, would enter their homes.”

But comparing Asheville’s experience to Middlebury’s is misguided. Asheville’s population is nine times greater (72,000 vs. 8,000). Middlebury is more homogeneous and affluent: 97.5 percent white, median household income $56,529 for Addison County, versus 90.7 percent white and $44,576 for Buncombe County.

Another major difference is the legal and cultural environments in which these public channels exist. Unpacking those differences reveals why Vermont, with just over 600,000 residents, has 23 communities with public-access channels, while North Carolina, with more than 9 million residents, has only six.

For more than 30 years, Vermont has required cable companies to provide public, education and government channels “upon request” by a municipality. And the state’s Public Service Board must ensure “adequate channel capacity and appropriate facilities” as well as “broad range of public, educational and governmental programming.”

The board can levy stiff fines on cable companies that try to skirt the law. In short, all the heavy-lifting of negotiating cable-franchise renewals is done at the state level, freeing local communities to focus on the details of building, operating and supporting PEG channels.

Here in North Carolina, we’ve never had that luxury. Instead, we’ve had to make the case that PEG channels are indeed a public good. That plus the wariness of local officials helps explain why the South has been a barren landscape for public access for more than 50 years.

This regional disparity has been very profitable for cable companies doing business here. While other states and regions routinely required companies to provide public services in exchange for a local monopoly, the South has been subject to a kind of high-tech carpetbagging.

Operating as “independent” consultants, former cable-TV employees swoop into town for franchise-renewal talks and secure a few high-profile “concessions” from the cable company — but never pursue the full range of potential public benefits.

Should anyone ask about PEG channels, the consultants whisper “pornography” and “the Ku Klux Klan.” Or they warn that it will cause rates to go up. The seeds of doubt and suspicion they sow find fertile ground in the South, where longtime power-brokers often feel threatened by more recent arrivistes who’ve seen the benefits of PEG channels elsewhere.

In July 2001, then Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey put the brakes on a staff-negotiated renewal with Charter after comparing it to a more robust contract recently negotiated by Gilroy, Calif., which had only a third of Buncombe’s 45,000 subscribers.

Ramsey and Commissioner David Gantt proposed a citizen task force to advise the county in its negotiations. But when commissioners appointed the task force, it was dominated by staff who opposed public access while supporting education and government channels. At one meeting, a county staffer flatly stated, “We don’t want to put those Asheville hippies on TV.”

As a result, the task force never seriously considered the more cost-effective option of bringing the PEG channels under one roof, which is how most successful operations (including Middlebury Community TV) are structured.

In a sense, Ms. Holder is correct in concluding that “URTV failed long ago.” But it was doomed to fail by city and county officials who insisted that public access must stand alone.

Before writing an obituary, however, we should ask who stands to gain from the channel’s demise.

The surviving education and government channels might divvy up the funding previously allocated for public access. Or the money could go into the city’s and county’s general funds, to be used “for any public purpose,” according to state law.

The 2006 video-franchise law also merits scrutiny. On June 15, county telecommunications consultant John Howell told the commissioners that the legislature “threw PEG under the bus” when it passed the law, resulting in sharply reduced funding for public-access TV “for the foreseeable future.”

[NOTE:  Howell represented Henderson County in its 2006 franchise renewal and led the effort to kill a citizens’ push for public access and a municipal fiber network, causing the Hendersonville Times-News to opine that the community “needs to hear from someone who has no professional connections to the [cable] industry.”]

But Howell’s math doesn’t jibe with the law’s actual wording, which requires local governments “to continue the same level of support for the PEG channels” that existed in 2006. Howell also implied that video-franchise distributions to the city and county are declining. In fact, they’ve grown steadily. According to the N. C. Department of Revenue, Asheville and Buncombe County received a combined $2.3 million in video-franchise revenue in 2007, $2.72 million in 2008 and $2.76 million last year. These totals include the 2006 benchmarked revenue for PEG support.

The law also created a second funding stream – the Supplemental PEG Fund – for new PEG channels as well as the growth of existing channels. An amendment recently doubled this annual per-channel payment, which should yield an additional $149,532 for the city and county’s four PEG channels.

Clearly, Raleigh isn’t diverting financial support for public-access TV. But it does appear to be at risk from certain people in local government and their advisers.

Meanwhile, a great deal of ink and blogosphere have been devoted to criticizing the nonprofit that manages our public access channel. Whether or not this criticism is deserved, the fact remains that the people who hired this nonprofit – and control its funding – are our elected officials.

If our public access channel dies on the vine, the root cause will be officials who never wanted it in the first place.

Asheville-based media-reform activist Wally Bowen is a long-time advocate for local PEG channels and helped organize a statewide coalition to preserve PEG funding in the statewide video-franchise law.

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