The Picture gets blurry for public access television

by JOSH GOODMAN, Governing

Every Monday evening for more than a decade in Portage, Indiana, Gordon Bloyer stirred up trouble. The middle-aged, mustachioed Bloyer used his 6:30 p.m. television talk show to lambast elected officials in the city of 35,000 on the shore of Lake Michigan. Not only were Portage politicians powerless to cancel the Gordon Bloyer Show — although at times they tried — they also were, in a sense, subsidizing Bloyer's attacks on them: His show appeared on public access television. "People would get all upset," Bloyer says, sounding satisfied. "So I figured that's good."

Now, Bloyer is up against a foe he can't beat. AT&T, looking for a fast track into the TV business, recently persuaded the Indiana legislature to move most aspects of cable regulation from the local level to the state level. A little-noticed byproduct of the new law is that independent local voices such as Bloyer's are being squeezed off the air. In fact, late last year many public access channels in northwest Indiana went dark.

Public access TV now faces a more uncertain future than at any time since its inception in the 1970s. In the past three years, some 20 states have, like Indiana, switched to statewide franchises for cable TV. In the process, public, educational and governmental channels — the so-called "PEGs" — are getting hammered. Many are losing funding or studio space, and in a few places PEGs are being shut down altogether. The wild sandbox that gave political gadflies, aerobics instructors, sex therapists and many others a place to hone their video skills, while entertaining those who dared to watch, may never be the same.

Then again, one could argue that public access TV has outlived its usefulness. In the era of Internet video, anyone with a digital camera or cell phone can broadcast his musings around the globe, with minimal effort. And so, even as Gordon Bloyer's weekly harangue fades to black, he isn't going away. He's simply moved his on-camera griping about politics to YouTube.


Public access TV is one product of a longstanding if uneasy partnership between local governments and cable companies. The cable companies needed franchises from localities to operate, and in exchange local governments have had the power to demand concessions. One thing that many localities negotiated from cable companies is support for local programming. Often that support is financial, in the form of "PEG fees." Sometimes it entails free community use of video equipment or a TV studio. And it almost always includes provision of one or more channels on the local cable lineup. Today, thousands of PEG channels exist nationwide, and contrary to popular belief, public access isn't solely the province of eccentrics. Many localities use PEG channels to broadcast council meetings, local parades and high school basketball games. Especially in big cities, some programming can look quite polished.

Recently, the traditional cable-franchising system that nurtured public access TV has come under assault. Telephone companies, most notably AT&T and Verizon, are getting into the TV business. They don't want to hop from town to town negotiating local franchises as the cable companies did. Rather, they want new rules that give them the power to obtain broadcasting rights for entire states in one fell swoop. Their argument that competition will drive down pay-TV prices and improve service has been so successful at the state level that the phone companies have scrapped efforts to lobby Congress for a national franchise law. Cable companies, meanwhile, initially lobbied against the telcos to protect their own turf but have grudgingly accepted the idea of statewide franchising as long as they get to play by the same rules.

Public access is losing out in this battle of TV titans. Under many of the new statewide cable laws, PEG fees have vanished. That change by itself doesn't push local stations off the air. But it does mean that local governments have to scrape up funding if they want to keep them around. For much of last year, Houston's public access channel appeared doomed, although after station managers pleaded for support from Mayor Bill White, Houston MediaSource TV got a new contract.

The worst-off stations are those where cable-company staff operated the access centers where programming is produced. In San Antonio, for example, PEG channels went dark for several months in 2006 because Time Warner, suddenly free of its local-franchise obligations, pulled out its staff and shut down its studios. That's also why the station in Portage, Indiana, is off the air. San Antonio found funds to get its channels back up but without studios of their own. Portage is considering running a channel through its public school system, but it would be for the schools' use only.

Public access TV has taken hits in other, less obvious ways. Take video quality. Local cable franchises generally included rules that required cable operators to treat PEGs and commercial channels equally, in terms of technical standards. The new statewide franchise laws often don't. The result is that as picture quality improves for commercial channels, for some PEGs it may actually get worse.

What's more, public access shows are getting harder for channel surfers to find. From Florida to Michigan, cable companies are shifting PEG stations to channel numbers in the 900s. As AT&T rolls out its own video service, it wants to place all PEGs from a given region on a single channel, where viewers will have to navigate a series of menus to find what they want. Says Bunnie Riedel, a local government consultant and longtime PEG supporter, "They've put the access channels in this ghetto."

From all of this, some PEG advocates have concluded that the trend toward state regulation is inherently bad for them. But that's not always the case. In Illinois, for example, the debate last year began with AT&T pushing a statewide franchise bill that included many unfavorable provisions for PEGs. When representatives of public access channels complained to legislators, however, they took notice. Ultimately, everyone with an interest in franchising rules — the PEGs, the phone companies, the cable companies, local governments, legislators and the attorney general's office — got together and hammered out a new bill.

The result was legislation that, if anything, improved life for PEGs. The Illinois law guaranteed public channels equal or higher PEG fees than they received under local agreements. It mandated that public channels get the same signal quality as commercial channels. And it allowed cities without PEGs to use franchise money to start as many as three stations.


Fans of public access TV have always had to wrestle with its "Wayne's World" image — unemployed slackers on a couch, mouthing off to the camera. That reputation certainly isn't helping PEGs defend themselves in the legislatures. Wisconsin state Senator Jeff Plale, who sponsored that state's new cable franchise law, has seen some public access shows that left him unimpressed. "We have a channel in Madison of a guy grilling a chicken; sometimes he grills lamb chops," says Plale. "Should the ratepayers really pay for that?"

Public access proponents prefer pointing to people such as Lisa Hendrick. In the mid-1990s, Hendrick began attending city commission meetings in Marine City, Michigan, and was shocked by the bad behavior she saw. She thought the shouting and melodrama should be televised, so she took her own video recorder and rolled the footage on the local access channel. "The meetings were so entertaining," Hendrick says, "people were making copies of the tapes and showing them at parties."

Such civic activism demonstrates that PEGs can offer a local focus that's missing from commercial TV. As Mary Bennin Cardona, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of PEG Access Channels, says, "You can tune to Chippewa Falls Channel 12 and learn what the community is doing, what the government is doing, what the nonprofits are doing, what Charlie down the street is doing."

Can Internet video match public TV as a venue for independent voices? Gordon Bloyer thinks so. Since he moved his local access show to YouTube, Bloyer has begun getting hits not just from Indiana, but from all over the world — although, tellingly, his focus has shifted from local politics to national politics. But Barbara Popovic, executive director of CAN-TV, a public access station in Chicago, isn't so sure. If the Internet were an adequate replacement for TV, she says, you'd see big media companies giving up their cable channels. It's no wonder why they haven't, Popovic says. "This is prime real estate."

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey