The End of ‘Gay USA’ and All Public Access TV

Congress is fast-tracking a bill that would severely cut back on the obligation of cable TV companies to devote channels to public access and fund the facilities to run them. If you care at all about preserving these precious community outlets, go immediately to saveaccess.org for the latest information on the bill and how you can stop it.

I do the weekly “Gay USA” news hour with journalist Ann Northrop at Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN), one of the many LGBT-themed shows such as “Dyke TV,” “Fruta Extrena,” and “Gender Talk TV” that will end or have tremendous difficulty surviving if this legislation succeeds.

The mega-diversity of New York barely breaks through homogenized commercial broadcast and cable stations, but public access gives voice to a dizzying array of communities and perspectives. “Democracy Now” with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez is our daily dose of reality news. Many of our local elected officials and community boards keep issues in front of us through public access. There are shows from Central Harlem, Spanish Harlem, and the Dominican, Ecuadorian, Hungarian, Brazilian, Cuban, and Chinese communities—again, to name just a few.

The city’s vibrant arts culture, especially in smaller venues, gets scant coverage from commercial stations, but public access takes us to all the cabarets, Off-Off-Broadway houses, art galleries, and music scenes. Among them are uniquely New York programs, such as “The Barry Z Show” and “That’s Kentertainment,” hosted by gay men.

Virtually every religious denomination in the city communicates to their believers through public access, including Manhattan’s Metropolitan Community Church serving LGBT New Yorkers. There are self-help, health, environmental, and sports shows. Labor keeps its members updated through public access. And there are more than 20 shows that are produced by the city’s youth, giving them a voice the networks are not about to grant them.

Why is Congress trying to sabotage public access? Because telephone companies are getting into the business of providing TV services and they do not want to be bound by the same local franchising agreements that obligate cable TV companies. Under the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006, the phone companies would be able to establish national franchises, bypassing the local franchising process entirely.

Proponents of the bill argue it will create competition and bring the cost of a TV feed down. But consumer groups say that it will just terminate all the negotiating power of local communities over rates and services. While you can now complain to a New York-based company when your cable service goes on the blink, in the brave new world envisioned by the COPE bill there is no telling how your problem will be resolved.

Across the nation, this will be the end of what is called PEG TV—public access TV, educational access TV that allows for long-distance learning in isolated regions of the country, and governmental access TV that cablecasts local public hearings and meetings.

The COPE bill also contains two other sinister provisions. One ends “Net Neutrality” and allows Internet service providers like AOL to prioritize e-mails based on the sender’s willingness to pay. Another lets cable TV providers redline low-income communities that they believe would be less profitable to serve.

Most Americans have no sense that the airwaves belong to the public. Giant media companies, networks, and local broadcast stations have chipped away at their obligations to act in the community’s interest for decades to the point where we have no expectations that we have a right to demand that they reflect our diverse identities and viewpoints. When cable blossomed, the duty to fund public access TV brought some of that diversity back to television. But now that, too, threatens to be terminated.

The phone companies are funneling millions in campaign contributions to Republican leaders and Democratic allies to get the House bill passed this coming week. While we are still trying to stop it there, there may be more hope in the Senate.

Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News and “Democracy Now,” was one of the leaders of the successful 2004 fight, originally dismissed as a “lost cause,” against relaxing media cross-ownership rules—affecting ownership for example of television stations and newspapers in a single market. He told an emergency meeting at MNN last Friday that he and his allies made “the impossible” happen then by uniting progressive interests and appealing to conservatives in small states that would be most affected by media conglomeration.

Nat Wood, a producer at MNN, said, “It doesn’t matter if you have free speech if you don’t have a platform. If they destroy access, it will be in perpetuity.”

The fight is on over the next couple of weeks to stop the bill in Congress. Write and call your representatives and senators to demand its defeat or, again, go to saveaccess.org for more information.

Dan Coughlin, executive director of MNN, said, “If this legislation passes, New Yorkers will have to call the FCC instead of 311 if they have a problem with their cable TV service. The failure to provide proper support and channel capacity will have a chilling effect on local media and the ability of the public to participate in the electronic marketplace of ideas.”

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