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Tales from the PEG-Channel Front

In Columbus, Ohio; Boston; Chicago; and St. Paul, Minn., local television speaks to viewers on topics and in languages uniquely their own.

Across the nation, PEG-access (public, education and government) channels-those locally owned and operated stations that allow almost anyone to star in a TV show-have evolved into a popular antidote to the corporatization of America.

Since their launch in the 1950s, locally generated shows have both kept their homespun flavor and continued to reflect the diversity of viewers that rely on them.

To hear advocates of democracy by television tell it, access television is thriving and expanding, although more than a few PEG operations have had to fend off efforts by operators to reclaim some of the valuable channels.

In Montgomery County, Md., a working group is studying how its 11 locally operated channels can be retrofitted with the high-speed-data transmission and two-way communications already available to cable-television viewers.

In Manhattan, the aptly named Manhattan Neighborhood Network runs 65 channels. In Northern California-where just four years ago, local-access television was a substandard product served up half-heartedly by the cable companies-a community board provides nearly full-time programming powered by a 550-megahertz, digitized system.

And in suburban St. Paul, Minn., local television producers get an earful when their local event coverage leaves anyone out.

"Last summer, our half-hour pre-parade show for 'Rose Fest' ran a little long, and we missed the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] and American Legion color guard. They called City Hall and they called us and complained that they were not in the live coverage," recalled Coralie Wilson, executive director of North Suburban Communications of Roseville, Minn., which operates four channels.

"I had to write a nice apology note to them. It's a great example of how much a part of the community public access has become," she added.

Beneath the surface, though, even operators of the most stable operations acknowledged that the future is hardly a lock given the valuable real estate the channels occupy. Bandwidth devoted to drumming up support for the local fire department or airing Chinese-language cooking tips, after all, does not generate profits for companies providing the space. PEG channels are on the table every time a franchise comes up for renewal.

Not only does cable hear from paying customers who want the same variety of programs as friends in other regions, but operators are also anxious for more capacity as they move into interactive voice and video, telephone and the Internet.

So even as community stations are bolstering their schedules, their technical reach and their budgets, some supporters fear that cable operators will turn on the heat until they regain the space "lost" under franchise agreements with local governments.

Tales of threats and averted threats to access stations are nearly as numerous as the examples of civic pride engendered from mom-and-pop television shows, as they are sometimes known.

As community-media advocates readily acknowledge, PEG channels' greatest asset can also be a weakness: their parochial appeal.

"We're not a national network-this is happening community by community," said Bunnie Riedel, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media, a Washington-D.C.-based watchdog for PEG-access channels. "That's good for us because we're so provincial that they can't wipe us out all at once. But we end up flying below the radar screen. It becomes easier for us to be hurt in communities where they never learned the value of it to begin with."

In the aggregate, the picture is bright for these proponents of democracy by television. With more than 5,000 channels run by 1,500 community centers-a list growing by several-dozen annually-PEG channels can be as much a part of life in some communities as the daily newspaper.

Shows are produced in nearly every language Americans speak. They are geared toward needs of the disabled. Shut-ins can "attend" Mass by turning on their televisions, and local candidates can televise messages they could not otherwise afford to broadcast.

Local and state government meetings are fixtures. Likewise, nonprofits produce programs and public-service announcements that deliver benefits that are difficult to translate into dollar amounts. College and high-school channels beam classes into the living room.

In Minnesota, a former state legislator shares her hard-won expertise in Car Talk for Women, while people who never got enough of their favorite science-fiction show can tune in for a half hour of Trek Talk. On a show called Northern Exposure, the host, who is physically disabled, offers his insights.

Aspiring writers in Columbus get tips on Not for Writers Only. The station, Community 21, is seeking hosts for shows geared to central Ohio's Hindu and Buddhist citizens. Stations operated by Chicago Access Corp. offer scholarships to teach leaders of nonprofits how to produce PSAs. On a show called Census Countdown, a Mexican-American woman urged Chicago's Hispanics to take part in the census.

Last year, the community-access organization in Santa Rosa, Calif., aired a version of classic flick His Girl Friday with narration in order to appeal to the visually impaired. Local-access broadcasts updates from its rooftop weather station-the only local report in the area.

"Right now, my studio is full of 40 uniformed firefighters making a training video on fighting wildfires," said Laurie Cirivello, executive director of the Santa Rosa Community Media Access Center, which operates four channels. "I have calls and visitors every single week who ask how we set this up. The movement is heavily armed with people who feel disenfranchised from the mainstream and want to maintain some local green space as everything around them is getting less local."

Access channels date to the start of cable. By the 1960s, about 30 cable systems originated local programs, although equipment costs limited growth.

By the 1980s, technology was far less expensive and cable was offering a great array of choices in most places. By then, local governments began requiring cable companies to set aside channels for local programs.

Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, cities and counties that strike franchise agreements with cable operators cannot strictly require them to provide PEG-access channels. Therefore, they become part of the give and take of franchise negotiations.

Studios are housed in colleges, high schools, city halls and independent nonprofit media centers like those of MNN and North Suburban, which take charge of numerous channels and train local citizens and organizations in production.

Cable companies themselves sometimes run channel operations, although these are generally viewed as weaker than those run directly by local citizens, who are more apt than in the past to operate them.

"We're completely supportive of PEG programming," said David Pacholczyk, a Chicago-based spokesman for Ameritech New Media, a subsidiary of SBC Communications Inc. that owns cable systems in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. "We've spent a lot more investing in the overlay network in those three states than we had to. We've always given back to our communities as a service."

Riedel's group gives ANM high ratings as a corporate citizen. But she said many other companies are straining under pressure to scale back neighborly obligations.

In Columbus, the ACM blasted a proposed measure, ultimately defeated, which would have relieved many cable companies of their PEG obligations.

Also defeated was a bill in Michigan that threatened to weaken PEG operations by pooling franchise fees at the state level.

In Los Angeles-a major media market with 12 franchise areas-cable companies provide what TV access exists, and the quality is so dubious that it's questionable whether many viewers would miss the programs.

In the San Fernando Valley, where soft pornography is a huge moneymaker, Riedel said, cable operators offer subpar PEG programs in hopes of negotiating out of their community obligation.

The Atlanta city government recently accepted $8.1 million from MediaOne Group Inc. in return for giving up five unused access channels-a transaction that still leaves the city with six channels.

The city defended the move, saying Atlanta cannot run 11 television channels and the proceeds will go toward creating community centers and training citizens on the Internet.

"Anytime it sounds like you're taking something away, it can seem suspicious. But in our situation, we're getting something back, something of value, in the new-media technology," city telecommunications manager Joiava Philpott said.

Riedel argued that Atlanta all but gave away a public asset. "They got the equivalent of $125,000 per channel, per year," she said. "It was incredible real estate they turned over for the cost of not much more than that of a 30-second spot."

Perhaps the biggest struggle is unfolding in Philadelphia, the nation's fourth-largest city, where advocates are fighting to establish public-access channels 15 years after the city entered into a franchise agreement that called for them.

George McCollough of the Philadelphia Community Access Coalition said the city has managed to avoid its obligation to create the channels' infrastructure, with funding from Comcast Corp., because much of the public was not aware of its 1983 agreement with Comcast for PEG channels.

The issue surfaced in 1997, when McCollough said Comcast tried to abandon its $7.5 million obligation to fund the five public-access channels, which had never been established because the city never created a community organization to run them.

Community outcry helped to retain the funding provision, but there has been no action yet on the public-access channels. (Government and educational channels are in operation, though.) And PCAC is keeping the pressure on, with billboards plastering photos of middle-aged churchgoers and teenagers who want public TV.

Ed Pardini, regional vice president for Comcast's Philadelphia-region operations, said his company continues to be ready to act on the access channels. In the meantime, it continues paying the city to fund a nonexistent public-access operation, and it uses the five stations for other programming.

"We have provided the six educational ones and the two governmental-access ones, but we do not have the five public-access channels because the city is required to establish a municipal-access corporation and, to date, it has elected not to do so," Pardini said. "The decision to engage in public access is entirely up to the city. Comcast stands ready to be in full compliance."

The office of newly elected Mayor John Street did not return calls seeking an update. Street-a public-access supporter when he served on the Philadelphia City Council-is supposed to hold hearings this year. But McCollough suspects both sides aren't exactly anxious to proceed: The city is already using the money, and Comcast would like to use those channels for its own commercial purposes.

"When politicians, cable companies and computer companies talk about the digital divide and trying to close it, I sense that when you read between the lines, they're trying to make low-income people consumers," said McCollough, who operates an educational-access channel largely run by volunteers at Drexel University. "We want to make them creators."

Like Riedel, McCollough suspects that many local governments do not want to give citizens free run of the airwaves.

Although not held to the same Federal Communications Commission regulations that govern commercial networks, access channels are run at the discretion of the community operators, which can pull programs deemed obscene, offensive or slanderous.

The decisions can be tough, given the premium placed on free speech and subjective nature of infractions.

In March, for instance, a St. Louis schools-based channel pulled a longstanding astrology program after a school-board member deemed it "satanic." That show continues on other local-access channels.

Pat Williamsen, executive director of Columbus Community Cable Access Inc., said recent events in her area should help to clarify that not everything belongs on the air.

Columbus Community Cable recently won a five-year First Amendment battle against Angsto the Clown, who unsuccessfully argued that his rights were violated when the community group refused to air his show. He flunked a three-part obscenity test established by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It took a jury 45 minutes to decide," Williamsen said. "I didn't enjoy being on the forefront of case law, but it does show that we are free to make our own editorial decisions."