Public Access TV: Lights, Camera and Confusion

A useful public affairs tool? Bringing the future of public access TV into focus.As communicators, we're always seeking avenues to engage the public in ideas or promote products. Although a small marketplace, public access television is an overlooked and little-used channel for PR professionals dealing with public affairs issues.

It's true, public access productions reach small audiences. But if original programming can be repurposed for reuse on the Internet, thereby gaining extended life and value.

A good example of getting the message out is the Pacific Questions, a series of videotaped panel discussions on timely community issues CFM helped Pacific University stage for its 150th anniversary. Each show was shown dozens of times on the public access network in Washington County, Tualatin Valley Community TV (TVCTV). The university positioned itself as an important part of the civic discussion.

Decision in Washington County highlights larger battles

Now, TVCTV faces serious cuts and closure of its studio where members of the public may produce programs of local interest. The commission proposing the reduced budget has scheduled a special meeting at 1:30 p.m., October 28. See news story: "Decision to 'decimate' public access TV postponed."

One concern in Washington County and elsewhere is the loss of production facilities for programs targeted to ethnic groups and special populations.

In fact, some regions, such as California, have eliminated the requirement that cable companies continue to pay for such facilities. So how viable are our public access channels. It's one of those "is the glass half full or half empty?" questions.

Trends to watch

Regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, PEG TV ¬-- Public Education and Government TV, is partially funded by mandated fees collected from local cable TV franchise holders. These fees pay for hardware and other capital costs but not necessarily operating and programming costs for local cable access providers. The PEG TV world actually is divided into three broad cable TV segments: Education channels; government channels; and public access community centers providing training and production equipment and studios.

The public access world is the most volatile. There are several trends to follow:

  • Public access TV will continue, but local community access studios are endangered, such as in Washington County.
  • The Internet and social media are affecting public access, but there are potential positives as well as negatives.
  • Some local access providers are shifting their focus from training the public on how to use new communications platforms, such as social media, and less on video production, although that is still a large piece of the mission.

The future of public access

A thoughtful and comprehensive analysis called "The Future of Public Access Television" comes from Paul Miniucucci. He is the director of Nevada County, California's public access system.

Miniucucci says there are three views about the industry:

"The first camp says there is little or no hope for public access television in the future. They do not see the efficacy of relying upon computers or mobile devices, arguing that these systems that rely on the Internet are inherently unreliable. They also argue that the cable operators are killing PEG stations slowly but surely through fiscal strangulation, and there is little hope for financial survival." 

"The second camp (in which camp I reside) says the future is bright even if we face short-term challenges because of the many ways to broadcast, narrow-cast or transmit content. This position holds that the future for PEG is through the web and the use of dedicated social networks."

"The third camp says wait a minute here, don't throw out the broadcast model just yet. Television is here to stay. Needless to say, many people over 50 are more comfortable in the last group, while younger people tend to be in the social network camp," Miniucucci concludes.

What's your mission?

It's clear that shrinking financial resources, and declining pools of volunteers, will force community TV centers to be flexible and adapt. The mission statement for Portland Community Media provides an example about how to focus on the end result and not get bogged down by the process of reaching the goal.

PCM's mission statement: "At Portland Community Media we inspire people from all backgrounds to engage with existing and emerging technologies for the purpose of promoting broad participation in our civic and cultural life."

Cable-casting? Websites? Facebook? Smart phones? What's in your community toolbox? Stay tuned as the shape of public access TV changes locally and around the nation.