Killing TV Softly — Lone Star Public Access Survives, Barely
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
By Nathan Diebenow, Associate Editor Lonestar Iconoclast
What if there was a television channel on which you could watch whatever you wanted? Anytime throughout the day, the content from his station would follow your heart’s desire. You have a pension for the history of your town. It’s on. Need to feed your obsession about belly dancing? It’s on. Try a planning and zoning committee meeting on for size. It’s all available with a click of your remote control.
Now, let’s take it a step further. What if you had the power to show just about whatever you wanted on this channel? Your church’s annual Easter egg hunt, your advocacy for veterans’ health benefits, and even your teen’s high school football game are all part of a string of endless possibilities.
Here’s the thing: this special channel and many others exist, and chances are your cable provider and city have teamed up to give you them. Surprised? Well, the concept was invented and implemented in the early 1970s. It’s called public access television.
But if you don’t act soon, public access might disappear from your screens.
License To Kill
Since 1973, cable companies had been obligated by federal law to provide municipalities with public, educational, and governmental channels (aka PEG channels), the means by which to produce programming on them, and complete service across economic and social class. In those days, cities took advantage of these channels to air shows at a very inexpensive cost.
"Back then, equipment wasn’t light weight or inexpensive. It’s moreso that now, but still we offer them a venue where they can create a television program and put it on the air," said Fred Fichman, executive director of Houston Media Source.
"Public access television is a vehicle for people to take advantage of their First Amendment to the Constitution which allows for free speech, for young people to hone their skills in video, and for organizations, like 501(c)3s, to tell their story to more than with one- or two-minute sound bites on the local news," he added.
Then, 2005 rolled around. That year, Texas set a precedent. The Legislature passed Senate Bill 5 (SB5) after a heavy lobbying effort by AT&T and other telephone companies wanting to compete in the cable market.
Ever since that landmark deal was struck, telecommunication firms have touted it as a huge success story that lowered prices for consumers through competition.
But cable prices have continued to rise anyway.
"Actually, I got a letter the other day that Time Warner is increasing their prices to their consumers upwards of a dollar to two dollars per package, depending on the package," said Margaret Somereve, president of the Texas Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors.
Essentially, SB5 changed the way cable and Internet video providers fund and operate PEG channels. Instead of signing franchise agreements with hundreds of individual cities, the providers now must file for a statewide franchise at the Texas Public Utility Commission within a 17-day window.
For access to a city’s rights of way under SB5, a cable or telephone firm must continue to pay rent to the city in the form of a franchise fee. This amount — five percent of the firm’s gross revenue — goes directly into the city’s general budget. It can be used to pay for any city services or projects the city council wants.
Under SB5, a state-franchised firm must also give its serviced city an additional one-percent fee from gross revenues. But this sum is earmarked for only capital expenditures for public access channels. What constitutes a "capital expenditure" remains undefined in the Texas law; applying it towards building purchases and/or salaries has yet to be tested in court. In any event, that one-percent fee isn’t payable to the incumbent city until its municipal franchise expires.
So what kinds of leverages do the municipalities get under SB5? Nothing. Cities under SB5 no longer can force these firms to build-out to everyone in their service areas. The telecoms can cherry-pick whom they serve. If residents do complain about poor service, they must do so to the TPUC, which then suggests they call their service provider.
The PUC has no power to enforce laws with fines; therefore, a consumer’s only avenue for grievance is to notify the Federal Communications Commission. Somereve, an assistant to the city manager of Farmers Branch, Texas, said that although her office has no authority, it will still try to work with residents and their video providers. "It’s strictly that we hope that on good faith AT&T will help us out because the resident called the city," she said.
The first Texas municipality impacted by SB5 was San Antonio. Cable operator Time Warner had furnished a studio, all the equipment and staffing (16 heads) for the city’s PEG system. But overnight, it was gone. Under SB5, Time Warner had no obligation to run any public access operations any longer. As such, all of San Antonio’s PEG channels went black at the end of December 2005.
The city finally got its PEG channels back on the air after seven months of lobbying by the San Antonio community. New equipment had been purchased to replace Time Warner’s. Yet today, 2½ years later, the public access producers are still lobbying for the city to build a television studio for them. In a perfect world, the old producers would get what they had before SB5, which was for paid professionals do all the work of creating television shows at their direction.
"Now you are in charge of filming, content, editing, which means you have to learn software on your own," said Patsy Robles Benitez, a San Antonio-based public access producer. "It’s very time consuming now."
To produce one 30-minute television program, it takes an investment of at least six to eight hours, estimated Benitez who produces a teen talk show called "411" (411show.blogspot.com/). Due to such time constraints on old producers, re-runs of old material are being shown on the San Antonio public access channel, she added.
To fill the gap of professional staff, a nonprofit — South Texas Media Access (txmediaaccess.blogspot.com/) — was formed to coordinate and train new producers to replace the old ones who were too used to the Time Warner set up.
"The most important thing that we have to teach other people is how to do it," said Benitez.
San Antonio Assistant City Attorney Gabriel Garcia said the city is still planning to create a studio facility that integrates the pubic access channel and its municipal channel.
"What you need is political will. You need people on the council that are willing to support these programs," Garcia said to an audience at the Texas Community Media Conference last March.
Much of the country looked to Texas for advice concerning copycat SB5 telecom bills in their state legislatures. As a result of those passing, PEG production studios have been dropping like flies across 17 states. Twenty-one studios in Indiana and Michigan closed just last year. Ohio, Florida, Missouri, and Wisconsin may go belly-up in five years due to lack of funding, so says the Alliance for Community Media.
Float Down Here
For San Antonio, the transition to the statewide franchise has been a living hell. The experience of other Texas municipalities has been varied, though. This is due in part because over the last 30-plus years, the cable companies willingly and sometimes by force passed the production side of PEG operations over to municipalities while still distributing their local content on the public airwaves.
"Fort Worth, I think, is one of the few cities in Texas that actually I think benefited from SB5," said Randy Westerman, Cable Communications Manager for Fort Worth Community Cable. "We’ve got a pretty good viewership here."
Westerman said that annual city surveys have found that 36 percent of the local population gets their news about city actions from the PEG channels. Day-to-day operating costs for the government and community channels are now being handled by the city under state franchises with four firms: Charter Communications, AT&T, Verizon, and OneSource.
Houston Media Source, however, almost went black. It operates Channel 17, which is one of three other PEG channels, two which are educational (Houston Community College and Houston Independent School District), and another, municipal. Thankfully for them, the community "jawboned" the city council and the mayor to save the station with its major cable provider Comcast.
"Houston is the fourth largest city in the country, and it’s the number 10 media market," said Fichman. "This is a major American city that would have lost its public access."
Word on the street is that public access is in danger of being shut down in the Sherman-Denison area, but a group is investigating ways to make it available again.
Of the public access operations the Iconoclast contacted, those in Austin (PACTAustin), Bastrop (Upstart), Dallas (Dallas iMedia Network), Fort Worth (Fort Worth Community Cable), and Houston (Houston Media Source) are handled by nonprofit 501(c)3 corporations. Being a nonprofit has allowed them greater flexibility in raising operational funds, running classes to train producers in their communities, and acquiring content to air regularly.
Currently, PACTAustin receives $617,500 to operate from the city as a pass-through from its major cable provider Time Warner. (Austin’s municipal franchise agreement expires in 2011.) Upstart garners no franchise fees from its city government and is thus outside of SB5’s funding loop. The City of Dallas gave iMedia $300,000 for this year. Fort Worth Community Cable has the same amount of money coming in from the city to run operations as before SB5. Houston Media Source’s operating budget returned to pre-SB5 levels after the city council stepped in to work out a deal last month.
Each public access entity also procured its facilities differently: PACTAustin is located in a city-owned building; Upstart, in one of two refurbished warehouses; Dallas iMedia Network, in a downtown public library; Fort Worth Community Cable, in a city-owned building; and Houston Media Source, in a leased space downtown.
All public access venues provide training to become producers for their channels. The cost varies from $20 to $300. Most centers require a yearly producers’ fee for equipment use. Austin has about 450 active producers. Dallas boasts 70 youth producers from a local magnet arts’ school. Fort Worth has 60 active producers; Houston, 300.
"I tell people often that you can learn in four weeks, spending $200 or $300 in all these classes, what took me four years at the University of Kansas, and even then, what I learned back in the mid-60s is like five generations removed from what’s happening now," said Fichman. "They can learn the techniques of shoot and edit pretty quickly."
In terms of content, use your imagination: cooking, semi-pro baseball games, church services, talk shows, current affairs, musical competitions, belly dancing, conspiracy theorists…
Several of the Texas public access stations expressed pride in providing Spanish language shows to their communities. Dallas’ station, in fact, produces a popular daily Spanish talk show that airs from 9 a.m.-10 a.m.
"There’s not one other Spanish-speaking talk show in the fifth largest media market in the country," said Lisa Hembry, President/CEO of Dallas iMedia Network, referring to her city. "The Latino population in Dallas apparently likes it a lot because when it’s not on, people call and say, I think, bad things to us in Spanish."
The Black Hole
Communities wanting to get their public access channel may face extreme difficulties under SB5. To get PEG channels, a designated city employee must call the cable or telecom company to ask for it. Under SB5, the cable or video service provider must give a large municipality (50,000 people and more) up to three PEG channels and a small municipality (50,000 or less) up to two PEG channels.
But the city must meet many requirements first, one of which is its ability to program 12 hours of content on the channel for each calendar day. Also, at least 40 percent of that 12 hour time slot must be "non-repeat programming." To get a third channel, a city must have both channels run 12 hours of programming a day for a calendar quarter, at least 50 percent of which is must be non-repetative for three straight quarters.
What constitutes "nonrepeat programming," however, is still unclearly defined by SB5, so bulletin boards may or may not be considered to fall under such programming.
Even then, it is becoming less likely that the public will see its local public access channels as easily, especially with AT&T’s U-Verse product. This system produces a multi-video cable-like product that uses the Internet as a distributor through an IP technology. Instead of giving viewers "channels" to surf, AT&T offers space to video programmers with discreet amounts of signal capacity.
To find all the PEG channels, AT&T forces users to unbury them on one single "channel," Channel 99. To view these PEG channels, a user must find Channel 99, scroll through a menu, and select the city (if it’s listed) to watch public access programming. This is different from cable service which allows users to quickly surf to see the content across all the channels. AT&T’s service still follows the letter of the law.
Service and picture quality differs between cable and U-Verse, as well. It can take upwards of 40 seconds to get the channel with AT&T versus two seconds to get it with cable, all due to different technology. The other kink in the U-Verse system is that municipalities must purchase a $6,000 box to route the digital signal from the consumers to the AT&T. With a cable company, the city just plugs into their system for free as part of the deal.
Municipalities are waiting for the result of a lawsuit filed by the Texas Cable Association over the constitutionality of the statewide franchise agreement system. The judge could rule in favor of the cable companies and kill all the existing cable franchise agreements in one stroke. Then, everyone in Texas would all fall under SB5, creating thousands of situations like San Antonio.
In the meantime, Congress or the FCC could act. Both were looking at franchise agreements seriously a year ago. There could be one federal-issued franchise that trumps all state-issued ones. "That issue is quite but it’s out there. It maybe a year before that pops up," said Somereve.
Still, Benitez believes SB5 must be changed for the sake of local community control, despite the power of the Internet which caters mainly to the affluent and the youth.
"You have to have broadband internet to be able to see video on the Internet. Even most of my own family don’t have high-speed internet. They simply can’t afford the broadband," she said. "I have websites. I get 100K hits a month. It’s great. But I do consider that I would like people in my own city to be able to see the work that I do and not just the people that can afford it."