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Media Democracy and the Struggle for Cable Access
by Mike Rhodes ( MikeRhodes [at] Comcast.net )
Monday Aug 9th, 2004 9:37 PM
An update on the struggle for media democracy in Fresno California

Media Democracy and the Struggle for Cable Access
By Mike Rhodes

Surf through the 100 channels that Comcast Cable offers its 72,000 subscribers in the Fresno/Clovis area and you will notice that they all have one thing in common. The content of the channels on the local cable network is controlled by corporate media. All news and analysis is filtered through the lens of huge media conglomerates interested in one thing - the financial bottom line. The rapid acceleration of media consolidation has resulted in the end of independent and alternative programming on TV. That is why you can have 100 channels and not find one interesting thing to watch.

The local battlefront for media democracy is over the franchise renewal agreement between our cable provider and the City of Fresno, the County of Fresno, and the City of Clovis. All of these agreements expire on December 31, 2004. What is at stake is Public, Education, and Government (PEG) access, a community media center, and the I-Net. Most cable franchise agreements provide the community with PEG access channels, a community media center, and an Institutional Network. In fact, almost every major California city, except Fresno, has PEG access. Modesto, Stockton, Sacramento, San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Los Angeles all have PEG access as a part of their cable franchise agreement.

What is PEG Access, a Community Media Center, and the I-NET?

PEG access provides a channel or multiple channels on the cable network for Public, Education, and Government programming. The cable company provides the channel(s) at no cost. They do this because they are given access to public space (roads, easements, etc) to run cable throughout the community. They agree to provide PEG channel(s) to compensate the community for the use of their space. The Public (P) channel(s) typically provide programming produced by community groups and individuals. A program on the Public channel could be about tenant rights and produced by Central California Legal Services or it could be a cultural presentation of Hmong dancers. An individual could produce a show about local politics or you could see Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now on public access TV. In short, locally produced, independent, and alternative video will have a home on the cable network.

The Education (E) channel(s) will be used primarily by the schools for education and distant learning purposes. If you tune in to channel 96 you will see the beginning of the local E channel. Channel 96 is the prelude to PEG. In an agreement reached earlier this year between Comcast and the schools and the City of Fresno, it was agreed to set up this channel. Right now, it is mostly broadcasting the Annenberg education channel. It is expected that local education and government programing will be on this channel soon.

The Government (G) channel(s) will have the capacity to broadcast the complete City Council, Board of Supervisors, planning commission meetings and more. The G channel(s) will be the communities window into what is happening in government. There will likely be permanent video cameras in government spaces which will be turned on when public meetings are taking place. Interviews with elected officials, city sponsored events, and more will be available on this channel.

The Community Media Center will be where much of the programming for the PEG channels will be produced. Funding to operate the community media center will come from the cable company as a part of the franchise agreement. Included will be video cameras, editing equipment, studios, and training. All of this will be provided to the community at no cost.

The Institutional Network or I-NET is a part of most franchise renewal agreements. An I-NET provides a high speed connection between government, educational, and community entities. This connection can be used for accessing the Internet, providing two-way video, and point of origin TV production. The I-NET can establish locations throughout the community where live TV production can take place. A good example would be to have an I-NET site at City Hall so we can see what is going on in local government, at a school so we can see musical or theatrical productions, or at a community center where a live cultural event could be shown throughout the community.

The Current Situation

Negotiations between the City of Fresno and Comcast are just getting underway. Other government bodies in the area (Fresno County, the City of Clovis, and Madera) are watching these negotiations and will probably come to an agreement after the Fresno City negotiations are completed. The City of Fresno has hired the Buske Group which is a consulting firm. The Buske Group will help level the playing field between Comcast and the City of Fresno.

In the prelude to negotiations on the franchise renewal agreement, the Buske Group conducted an extensive community needs assessment study which involved hundreds of community leaders in the process. In a series of community meetings, details about PEG access, the community media center, and I-NET were explained and excitement about the potential of the franchise agreement grew. For the past several months a task force of community, education, and government members has been meeting regularly. The group has narrowed the search for the community media center location to a couple of sites, has worked out many of the details on the I-NET, and is looking into the establishment of a nonprofit 501C3 to oversee the PEG channels.

The good news is that the process to bring media democracy and PEG access channels to Fresno is going well. The danger is that negotiations with Comcast have just begun and it is unclear what direction those negotiations will go in. We can expect a few bumps in the road. Community activists who support media democracy must be prepared to lobby City Council members or show up at a meeting when needed. The next 10 - 15 years of policy that determines the level of media democracy in this area will be decided upon in the next few months. The Community Alliance magazine, radio station KFCF 88.1 FM, and Indymedia < www.indybay.org/centralvalley > will keep you informed and alerted when your help is needed.