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Keeping the community in CATV

Fri, 10/31/2003 - 7:00pm
Thomas G. Robinson, Executive Vice President, CBG Communications Inc.
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By Thomas G. Robinson, Executive Vice President, CBG Communications Inc.

This is going back a ways, but some of you will remember when the term "CATV" meant Community Antenna Television, rather than cable TV, or cable telecommunications. Back in the day (as they say here in Philly) when CATV was the only means of providing broadcast television to rural and mountainous areas, CATV system owners started to think about putting together local community television programs that would be of high interest to city, county and town residents. Some of these first efforts were the genesis of local origination (LO). Operators found, over time, that they could create a scaled-down version of a broadcast television station and compete for advertising dollars with some of the distant broadcast stations that they were bringing in through their mountaintop antennas. Later, companies like Warner Amex invested a significant amount in LO, covering local parades, fairs, community forums and even providing local news and public affairs programming.

As LO grew, it began to become more commercially oriented, so there was a push for community programming that would be noncommercial in nature. In the 1970s, the FCC established the initial guidelines for public, educational and governmental (PEG) access. The FCC theorized that PEG Access would be a way cable operators could satisfy the public interest. Thus, there was an initial push to devote at least one channel, besides LO, to noncommercial, community access that might be shared by public, educational and governmental programmers. For systems that had greater channel capacity, such as those in the mid to late 1970s that were beginning to use more than the mid-band for 30 and 40 channel transmission, three channels became the norm (one each for public, educational and governmental purposes).

In many cases, public access began as a creature of the cable company, with the LO staff providing manpower, studio availability and equipment for use by the general public to develop both studio and field productions. As the 1980s began, and bandwidth continued to increase to the 50- and 60-channel level, especially in larger jurisdictions, it was common for a non-profit access corporation to emerge that received facilities, equipment and operational support from cable operators to develop its own channel or channels. Especially during the franchise bidding wars of the early 1980s, it was common for large operators to provide 10 percent or more of their channel capacity for PEG purposes.

In these instances, where public access was well funded, it developed into a multichannel offering and provided far more coverage of the local community, in a noncommercial fashion, than in previous times. Today, some systems will have at least two public access channels, one commonly devoted to staff-produced programming, and one devoted to eclectic programming produced by the community at large.

Educational access has had a similar evolution, from providing single studio programs such as the "Homework Hotline" shows to school lunch menus and school closing information. Educational access is now typically among the most watched access programming.

It also has evolved into multiple channels. For example, some jurisdictions have a general K through 12 channel which focuses on parent outreach, student-produced programming, school board meetings, curriculum profiles and coverage of events held at school facilities; an adult education channel, with programming highlighting a school system's night and weekend adult education classes; and higher education channels, both targeted internally at college and university students, as well as externally for members of the general public who either want to audit or take for credit classes by television. As such, there may be three, four or more educational access channels.

In the same vein, government access has evolved from simple, "television verity" coverage of city council meetings to programming that provides a wide variety of information about government programs and services, as well as weather and traffic emergency and other public safety-oriented information. Again, in large jurisdictions, government programming has expanded to two to three channels, with one focusing on live meetings, one focusing on live and taped programs about government events and services, and one focusing on public safety information, which may also be the channel to tune to when the emergency override function is activated.

This level of PEG access meets the vision provided early on by the FCC and public interest groups. At the recent annual National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) conference, though, an extremely troubling note was sounded by Comcast representatives related to their vision of the future of access. Their future would move access into an on-demand service accessed basically through high-speed Internet connections. However, much like a variety of other cable services that are looking at a mix of real-time offerings, on-demand services, analog provision (until at some point in the future all video services move into the digital realm), standard definition and high definition digital channels, so must access, to be effective, be provided through all these methods. Relegating access services to what could be seen as an on-demand "backwater," rather than putting them out for all the subscribing public to see through a variety of transmission methods, will not only severely decrease their effectiveness, but will take away one of the competitive advantages that cable has, in that it's a provider of true, local programming which direct satellite service cannot replicate.

It must be remembered, Congress had a critical underlying purpose in stipulating that access channels are to be on the most basic tier of service. In Congress' eyes, these channels were important enough to the community that everybody should get them, regardless of what other services they chose. Taking a page from Congress' book, the industry should, instead of inexorably moving to being just another national service like satellite, remember its successful roots and the "community" in its name.

Have a comment? Contact Tom by e-mail at: robinson@cbgcommunications.com

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