On November 9th the House Subcommittee on Commerce held hearings on draft legislation currently know as the "BITS II" bill. The impact of this legislation would be far reaching for the thousands of community access television stations from coast-to-coast that rely on local franchise arrangements for funding and channel space.
If passed this legislation will be a severe blow for localism in America. By dismantling local media "franchises" and replacing them with a national franchise, it will impact the ability of local communities to control their own communications infrastructure. And by ending local franchises it could dismantle the funding stream and channel space for Public, Educational and Governmental (PEG) Access TV. Community media advocates nationwide are calling for supporters to contact their elected representatives and speak out against this legislation. Information on how to do this has been set up at many local access TV centers and on the national website of The Alliance For Community Media ( http://www.alliancecm.org/).
With conservative members of the House Subcommittee pushing for a quick finalizing of the language of this bill, community access TV supporters and their allies are being asked to act immediately to contact their representatives; to make the general public aware of what is at stake in this issue; and to make as much "noise" as possible at the city, state and federal level.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said he is seeking a date in December for a subcommittee vote on the draft of BITS II, followed by a vote next year before the full Commerce Committee. Barton indicated this would probably be by March 2005. Political insiders argue that once the language in this bill is completed and it leaves sub-committee hearings, it will be much harder to effectively oppose.
The driving force behind this legislation is the phone companies' desire to provide Internet based broadband video service. They seek to enter this hugely profitable emerging communications marketplace without having to negotiate franchises with local municipalities. Sponsors of the legislation say it will help consumers by increasing marketplace competition and thereby lowering cable TV subscription rates. However in testimony at the November 9th hearings Gene Kimmelman, of the Consumers Union, stated the bill "fails to deliver the polices necessary to ensure that consumers will receive meaningful growth in price competition". He continued that the "American consumer is being asked to give up a great deal in exchange for another promise of competition at some distant point in the future. Consumers have had their pockets picked too many times to be fooled again".
Among the things the public is being asked to give up is robust local-focus community TV. The framework for Public, Educational, and Governmental (PEG) TV was put in place during the late 1960s and early 1970s on the principal that local communities should have an opportunity to produce and air programming that would reflect the unique character and concerns of those communities. Today in thousands of communities large and small PEG TV is an essential part of the community. Public Access TV offers a range of viewpoints and expressions unseen anywhere else in the mass media. Governmental TV keeps citizens informed about local elections and other important local political issues. And Educational TV provides essential programming for school-age youth, for colleges, libraries and adult learners.
Described in 1972 by the Federal Communications Commission as an "electronic soapbox", Public Access TV has grown to be a unique institution in American society. One where ordinary citizens can, for little or no expense, make and air programming they have themselves made on issues that matter to them. Today over 1.2 million people volunteer at access TV centers nationwide. In addition over 250,000 groups and organizations produce programming. Speaking on behalf of the Alliance For Community Media at the November 9th hearings, Harry "Hap" Haasch described the service Public Access TV programming plays in many communities. He highlighted the extensive local election coverage offered by Chicago's Chicago Access Network Television; health programming in Ann Arbor that focuses on the danger of kidney disease for Afro-American men and women; and live coverage of youth tennis championships in Kalamazoo. Haasch's everyday examples offer a tiny sampling of the entertainment and community-building programming offered on access TV channels nationwide.
At access centers around the country citizens, access TV producers, and members of organizations working with access TV are organizing in response to this legislation. Already tens of thousands of letters and emails have been sent to elected representatives, and in NYC the office of Commerce Committee member Eliot Engle (D-New York) is said to have complained about the number of emails they've received. Community media advocates are calling for a heightening of these efforts in the weeks immediately after Thanksgiving as the Commerce Subcommittee continues to develop the language for this bill.
BITS II is the latest in a barrage of legislation that could impact the future of Public Educational and Governmental TV in America. In July the "Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act" (S.1504) and the "Video Choice Act of 2005" (S.1349, HR3146) were introduced, and have been referred for committee hearings. With focus now shifted to BITS II, it is not clear if these earlier bills will be pursued, withdrawn or revamped.
This legislation is a major rewriting of telecommunications policy, however it has received little coverage in the mainstream media. In addition, as a recent article on TelecomWeb (11/7/05) illustrates, the public should be cautious about groups that appear to advocate on their behalf. This article reveals that Consumers of Cable Choice - an organization vocal about the need to dismantle local franchises - received $75,000 in start-up funding from Verizon.
Today, as commercial cable TV grinds under the weight of relentless reruns of studio produced situation comedies and drama, localism and democratic access to the media is needed more than ever. As if to illustrate this point Time Warner Inc. recently announced that they plan to distribute thousands of TV episodes free-of-charge though American Online. Among the shows they will distribute are "Welcome Back Knotter" and "Wonder Woman". They, in other words, plan to use the latest video delivery technology to rerun mediocre television fare of the 1960s and 70s.
Independent Media Advocate
Visit the Alliance For Community Media to add your name to electronic letters opposing anti-access legislation:
link to hq.democracyinaction.org
For additional resources go to:
Free Press - http://freepress.net/defendlocalaccess/
National Association of Telecommunication Officers and Advisors - http://www.natoa.org/public/articles/?cat=6
Grassroots Cable - http://www.grassrootscable.com/
Or visit some of the access TV centers hosting advocacy efforts against this legislation:
Chicago Access Network TV - http://www.cantv.org/callactn.htm
Portland Community Media - http://www.pcmtv.org/call_to_action.php
Manhattan Neighborhood Network - http://mnn.org/saveaccess/
Hamden - http://www.citizenstv.net/