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Community Development Television

Those who do not know public access television might take a look at Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s line-up of shows -- with names like Rappin With Rockstars, Outside My Window, Mark After Dark -- and conjure up images of a real-life Wayne’s World.

But then they do not know the story of the three women from the Lower East Side who, after taking a workshop at the Lower East Side Worker’s Center of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops , each created her own separate first-person documentary about her health problems in the wake of September 11th.

The documentaries were first shown on one of MNN’s public access TV channels. Then they were projected onto the wall of a neighborhood church during a community organizing event. These screenings helped spur a neighborhood campaign that prompted Bellevue Hospital to provide better medical service to people suffering post 9/11 health effects, regardless of income.

MNN, which arguably runs the most prominent of the 3,000 public access television channels in the country, boasts 560 hours of local programming per week, including programs used by youth, immigrants, women and people of color to maintain an electronic dialogue with people living in Manhattan. MNN also provides grants to 25 neighborhood-based groups so that they can create video content that furthers community development agendas.

Esperanza del Barrio used one of these grants to document police harassment of street vendors. The Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, the organization I now work for, discussed how homeowners can avoid deed-theft scams on a talk show it produces on MNN.

But the opportunity for community development on public access television may change if pending federal legislation is passed –- because there may no longer be any public access television as we know it.

Shifting Regulatory Ground

Current federal law requires cable companies in New York City to provide service to all areas of the city as part of the price they pay to be given permission for ripping up streets and using city resources to lay their cable. Under “franchise” agreements that cable companies entered into with the city, cable companies must also provide television channels for public, educational and government (known as PEG) programming as well as provide these non-profit institutions with television production capacity. As a result, every borough in New York has public access television channels, facilities, equipment and operations that are paid for by the cable companies.

But this may change. In an effort to compete with companies like Time-Warner, RCN and Cablevision who provide cable services throughout the New York area, telecommunication behemoths like Verizon and SBC are looking to provide video services themselves. And to do this, they are lobbying for various laws that would make it easier for them to compete. Several of them are wending their way through Congress now.

''My bill seeks to keep limitations and regulations to a minimum in order to encourage an active, growing marketplace rather than the atrophied one we have right now,'' Marsha Blackburn, Republican Congressman of Tennessee, explained to Felicia Lee in an article about the various legislative proposals in the New York Times earlier this month. Lee added: “Advocates of the legislation say that the fears of the demise of public access are exaggerated and that some local control of franchises is written into the bills.”

But the supporters of public access are skeptical. “The introduction of broadband technology is a good thing,” said Lyell Davies, one of the 40 staff members at Manhattan Neighborhood Network. “But there’s no reason why it can’t be introduced with the same franchise requirements.”

If some of this legislation is passed, there may no longer be the conditions that ensure universal cable service, and enable neighborhood-based voices to make an impact through their use of public access.

Instead of having to report to City Hall, companies would conceivably report to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) where there would almost certainly be less local oversight and less capacity to respond to consumer complaints.

Instead of providing service to all corners of the city, new high quality Internet, television and phone services could conceivably land in Murray Hill and the Upper East Side while circumventing Red Hook, Hunts Point, Washington Heights or anywhere else that is perceived as offering less profit potential.

And instead of having the option to tune into one of your neighbors providing information on a matter of immediate relevance to your surrounding area, you could be restricted to a strict diet of non-local, corporate-run television.

Shred To BITS?

The fact is, no one is exactly sure what direction the telecommunications legislation will go. Right now there are several competing proposals. The one that advocates are focusing their attention on is referred to as Broadband Internet Transmission Service (BITS) II and still being debated in a congressional subcommittee. Public access advocates are concerned that it entails federal, not city, oversight over franchise enforcement; places a ceiling on the number of public access channels that would be provided; dramatically lowers the amount that companies would set aside for public access operations and gives companies considerable latitude in determining what neighborhoods they may – or may not – serve.

If Verizon and SBC are given a lower bar to clear when using city infrastructure to expand their services, it would certainly prompt cable companies to demand, in the name of fair competition, that their bar be lowered as well.

But beyond the worlds of television and Internet services, the stakes are high because cable company franchises are unique and have far reaching implications for how municipalities do business with companies that use public resources. Franchise agreements speak directly to what role these companies should play in community development. Rick Junger, the director of community media for Manhattan Neighborhood Network, agrees: “The cable franchise model is one of the only one of its kind that builds in public interest and support for the surrounding community.”

Mark Winston Griffith, the co-director of the Neigbhorhood Economic Development Project (NEDAP) and a fellow at the Drum Major Institute, has been in charge of the community development topic page since its inception in 2003.  

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