They aren’t an endangered species yet, but public, educational and governmental cable channels are under
terrible attack. That’s the opinion of Bunnie Riedel, executive director of American Community Television, a
nonprofit organization that advocates for the preservation of PEG channels, and president of Riedel Communications,
a consultancy whose client base includes government entities and nonprofit organizations. She
recently spoke with Multichannel News contributing writer Janet Stilson about the state of PEGs today.
MCN: Please give me your views about the
state of public-access programming today.
Bunnie Riedel: It depends upon where you
are [located] as to the health of it. Between 2005
and 2008, AT&T went across this country getting
statewide franchising laws passed. They got 20
of them passed. And recently, CenturyLink got a
statewide franchising law passed in Idaho.
It depended upon the state as to whether or
not PEG would be supported or not supported
[as a result of the statewide laws]. For instance,
we lost all PEG funding in Nevada, Kansas and
South Carolina immediately when the laws
Last May, we lost funding in Wisconsin. As of Jan. 1, we lost
funding in Missouri, Ohio, Iowa and Florida. And in July we
lose funding in Georgia. The recent law in Idaho wipes out PEG
funding also. I’m just not sure when that one kicks in.
MCN: Did PEG programmers have any wins?
BR: We did OK in California; we retained our funding. We
did OK in Illinois and Michigan and Indiana.
But as we went from 2005 to 2008 — and as AT&T upped its
lobbying effort to get these bills passed — the attitude toward
PEG became more and more scorched-earth, in my opinion.
Only in places where we had a good ground presence, where
people were able to organize and coordinate, were we able
to hold onto our funding. In some places we also were under
threat of losing our channels.
And so we’re in a scramble here to try to get a piece of federal
legislation that will restore, in my opinion, the original intent
of the Cable Act of 1984. And that is that communities should
be able to, if they want, get PEG channels and also get support
for those channels.
MCN: That’s what the Community Access Preservation Act
is all about, right?
BR: Exactly. And this is how ludicrous it is: In Georgia, it’s the
Department of Agriculture that does cable franchising.
MCN: How many PEG channels have disappeared?
BR: I don’t know at this point. We know it’s
about 100 in California, 35 in Wisconsin. Cincinnati
Public Access has pretty much shut
down. They’re going to move the channel into
PBS, and that’ll be an interesting experiment.
I hear some people that say, “I can only operate
another six months.” Some people are operating
on air reserves. The brunt of it is going to
be born by public access. Besides being a freespeech
forum, public access is also the place
where nonprofits can put their messages. You
can’t really do nonprofit messaging on government
access because of equal-access laws.
MCN: Has the Web-video revolution helped the situation
BR: We get these snarky [comments] from the cable operators,
“Well, you can just put everything up on the Web
or YouTube or whatever.” And my response is, “As soon
as ESPN goes to Internet-only, we’ll follow.” But that’s
not going to happen.
MCN: So even though PEG channels are threatened,
we’re not talking about an endangered species at this
point in time, right?
BR: I don’t know yet. To a certain extent, in the states
that still have local franchising, we’re doing quite well.
But in the states where we have statewide franchising, it
certainly has been a terrible battle.
As I like to say, it’s a perfect storm. Perhaps if [statewide
franchising] happened in 2002, when the economy
was booming, it would be a different story. [But now] the
mayor of Atlanta doesn’t have the ability to reach in his
back pocket and pull out $500,000. Municipalities are
crushed. And when it comes to, “shall we fund the PEG
channel, or shall we fund the police department,” we
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