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September 22, 1998

Where Is Mobile's Public Access Channel?

by R. Bruce Brasell

If you subscribe to Comcast Cablevision in Mobile you know that Channel 6, which goes by the tag line "Port City 6," carries local programming. For example, one can watch a BayBears game on the channel instead of driving to Hank Aaron Stadium. At first I thought this was Mobile's public access channel but was confused because almost every show on the channel contains commercials or has a commercial sponsor. So I watched the channel for a week to confirm my suspicions, and sure enough the only shows on the channel that did not have commercial tie-ins were six religious shows. Even the community bulletin board charges. (See Exhibit 1.) The channel appears to be a lease channel, not a public access one.

A lease access channel rents air time for a fee. Because I was uncertain I called Comcast to find out for sure. I talked first with Wade Ford, the lease access coordinator, and then Steve Thomas, the production manager. They both informed me that channel 6 was indeed a lease access channel, not a public one. When I inquired if even the religious shows lease time, because they were the only ones without a commercial sponsor or commercials, Steve Thomas informed me that they do. So if Channel 6 is a lease access channel, then where is Mobile's public access channel?

In order for a cable company to operate in a particular area it must obtain a franchise from the local governing body, in our case the Mobile City Council. Because cable companies need access to public rights of way, local governments have become the primary regulators of the cable industry in the United States through the issuance of franchise agreements. Franchise agreements also typically establish rates and terms of services. (In Mobile, the cable company is required by the franchise agreement to charge its subscribers a "fair and reasonable" rate.) In effect, the franchise agreement grants the cable operator a monopoly over a specific geographical area.

The franchise agreement between the City of Mobile and Partners In Communication/Alabama, Inc., adopted by the city council on March 24, 1987, was transferred to Comcast Cablevision Corporation of Mobile, Inc. on May 25, 1989. As a condition of that transfer, Comcast, which is the fourth-largest cable system operator in the nation, agreed to abide by all of the conditions set forth in the city's previous franchise agreement with Partners In Communication.

One section of the franchise agreement concerns the cable company providing PEG access. PEG is the legal term for what most of us know as "public access." PEG stands for "public, educational, or governmental." According to the franchise, Comcast must provide PEG access facilities on one cable channel if requested to do so by the City of Mobile. (See Exhibit 2.) The question that arises is: has the City of Mobile never requested Comcast to provide a public access channel and therefore Comcast is not required to provide one, or has the city requested one and Comcast is in blatant violation of its franchise agreement with the City of Mobile?

I have not yet been able to find an answer to this question. I placed numerous calls during the past two weeks to Mike Smith, the general manager of Comcast in Mobile, but unfortunately he never returned any of my calls. I assume by his not returning my calls that he does not want to discuss the matter, but I have no idea why.

I also contacted Mobile City Council member Bess Rich, because I heard she was working to have city council meetings broadcast over Channel 6. Rich proposed a city council resolution on televising city council meetings during the summer of 1997 which the council adopted in December of that same year. (See Exhibit 3.) The resolution, however, only applies to televising council meetings on Channel 6. I assume the city will not have to pay for the air time even though Channel 6 is a lease channel, not a PEG one. Does the inclusion of city council meetings on Channel 6 jeopardize its status as a lease channel? Knowing corporate lawyers, I'll bet the arrangement will be configured so that it does not. This arrangement may help out the city government but what about the general public? Will they continue to be left out of the access arena?

The city council resolution does not address the issue of PEG access. A PEG channel does not have to automatically include all three elements -- public, educational, and governmental. In the franchise agreement between the City of Mobile and Comcast (See Exhibit 2.) the three words are connected by an "or," not an "and." A PEG channel could be composed of just one of these three component, and some cities have only a government access channel, choosing to deprive their citizens of public access. I hope this will not happen in Mobile.

The Public Sphere

Many people who live in areas without public-access TV don't really know what it is. For some, mention of public access conjures up images of Wayne's World, the "Saturday Night Live" skit and movie about a cable access show of the same name. Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, played by Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, host a cable access show from a basement. Though this is public access, it is also much more. In addition to this fun and zany side, which provides entertainment and an avenue for artistic endeavors in the creation of moving imagery, it also has the potential to be a tool of democracy.

Public access should not be confused with public television. Public television's function is to offer "a more substantial, thoughtful, challenging, or uplifting individual viewing experience than a commercial channel." In other words, public television is about bringing "quality" TV to the public. In contrast, public access has the potential "to be a site of communication among and between members of the public as the public," according to Patricia Aufderheide's essay, "Cable Television and the Public Interest," published in the Winter, 1992 issue of Journal of Communication. In this age of one-way mass media, public access, like the internet, can function as a public space for the discussion and debate of issues important to the community. It is a participatory medium in which anyone can be a producer, a receiver, or both.

Public access is often described by its proponents as a "public sphere." This may sound rather utopianistic. But public access is only a potential site of democracy in action. The technology is not inherently democratizing. In other words, public access is only an avenue for its occurrence, not a guarantor of it. Its occurrence depends on how the technology is used by the community.

The public sphere is "a social realm distinct both from representative government and from economic interest." It "becomes a living reality in 'free spaces' in which people both discuss and act on their conclusions," according to Patricia Aufderheide. The concept of the public sphere involves the idea of a space open and accessible to everyone and is associated with the emergence of coffee houses in Europe. An example of such a space in American history might be the sidewalk in front of the local grocery store where people congregated to sit and talk. Today, community-based communications systems such as public access offer a mechanism for the formation of a strong and vibrant public sphere.

How is public access able to accomplish this? The federal law prohibits the censuring of shows on public access except for obscenity. (See Exhibit 4.) And the city's franchise agreement with Comcast reiterates this legal point by stating that "The Grantee [Comcast] shall not exercise any editorial control...during authorized PEG access use." As a result, this allows public access to function as a mechanism for the exercise of the freedom of speech. Because no public access channel exist in Mobile, its citizens are denied this valuable means of community debate and interaction. Unlike a lease access channel, no fee is charged for the use of a public access channel. The air time is available on a first-come, first- served basis to members of the community until all of the time is used up, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Because it is free, most public-access channels prohibit commercial advertisements or solicitations. The PEG paragraph of the City of Mobile's franchise agreement with Comcast includes such a provision for the commercial use of public access channels. According to the franchise agreement, any air time on the PEG access channel not utilized by the community can be used by Comcast "for any other purposes it deems appropriate." For example, it can lease the remaining air time to commercial interest. In other words, a public access channel belongs to the citizens of the community, and the cable provider only has a right to the unclaimed time. In some communities a separate not-for-profit organization is established to manage the public access channel, while in other communities the cable company assumes such duties.

A public access channel offers two unique opportunities to the citizens of Mobile. First, it provides a site for the development of a video-based performance art in Mobile. Secondly, it provides a means for the "average" citizen to have a social and/or political impact on his or her community because public access can function as an open forum for public debate. I do not think we have to chose between these two options -- artistic endeavors and public debate. A public access channel can be both.


Exhibit 1 - Channel 6 Schedule Analysis

The shows seen during my week of viewing break down as follows, based on a viewing schedule of 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 10:00 p.m. on Sunday. This adds up to 40 hours of air time. A number of shows aired more than once during the week.
Hours
Shows with commercials (or commercial sponsor)26.5
Infomercials6.0
Religious shows (no commercials)3.5
Classifieds/Bulletin Board4.0


Total40.0


Exhibit 2 - City of Mobile Cable Franchise Ordinance

Sec. 32. Public, Educational, or Governmental Access (PEG) Facilities. The Grantee shall construct, equip and make available upon the request of the city, public, educational, or governmental access facilities on at least one operational cable channel. The Grantee shall be entitled to a minimum of seven (7) days advance notice, except in an emergency, prior to any use of the access channel. The Grantee shall not exercise any editorial control nor transmit any commercial advertising during authorized PEG access use. The Grantee may use the dedicated PEG access channel for any other purposes it deems appropriate at other times, provided however, the PEG channel shall not be a channel which regularly transmits programming normally received in the City of Mobile without the availability of cable service. Access facilities shall not be required until the Grantee has one thousand (1,000) or more subscribers.

(Adopted by the Mobile City Council on March 24, 1987 and amended on May 25, 1989.)


Exhibit 3 - Mobile City Council Resolution on Televising Council Meetings

WHEREAS, televising public meetings enhances the public's access to community and governmental information; and
WHEREAS, the local TV Cable Company (Comcast) has agreed to provide weekly broadcasts of these meetings, both live and on a replayed basis on Channel 6 in accordance with the attached letter.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that We, the Members of the Mobile City Council, do hereby support the concept of televised Mobile City Council Meetings.

(Adopted by the Mobile City Council on December 9, 1997.)


Exhibit 4 - 1934 Federal Communications Act (as amended by 1984, 1992 and 1996 Acts)

Sec. 611. [47 U.S.C. 531]

CABLE CHANNELS FOR PUBLIC, EDUCATIONAL, OR GOVERNMENTAL USE.

(a) A franchising authority may establish requirements in a franchise with respect to the designation or use of channel capacity for public, educational, or governmental use only to the extent provided in this section.

(b) A franchising authority may in its request for proposals require as part of a franchise, and may require as part of a cable operator's proposal for a franchise renewal, subject to section 626, that channel capacity be designated for public, educational, or governmental use, and channel capacity on institutional networks be designated for educational or governmental use, and may require rules and procedures for the use of the channel capacity designated pursuant to this section.

(c) A franchising authority may enforce any requirement in any franchise regarding the providing or use of such channel capacity. Such enforcement authority includes the authority to enforce any provisions of the franchise for services, facilities, or equipment proposed by the cable operator which relate to public, educational, or governmental use of channel capacity, whether or not required by the franchising authority pursuant to subsection (b).

(d) In the case of any franchise under which channel capacity is designated under subsection (b), the franchising authority shall prescribe-

(1) rules and procedures under which the cable operator is permitted to use such channel capacity for the provision of other services if such channel capacity is not being used for the purposes designated, and

(2) rules and procedures under which such permitted use shall cease.

(e) Subject to section 624(d), a cable operator shall not exercise any editorial control over any public, educational, or governmental use of channel capacity provided pursuant to this section, except a cable operator may refuse to transmit any public access program or portion of a public access program which contains obscenity, indecency, or nudity.

(f) For purposes of this section, the term "institutional network" means a communication network which is constructed or operated by the cable operator and which is generally available only to subscribers who are not residential subscribers.


Public Access Resources

Organizations

Public Access Awareness Association, Inc. 264 S. La Cienega Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90211 (310) 284-4877. http://www.publicaccess.org/

Alliance for Community Media 666 11th St., NW, Suite 806, Washington, D.C. 20001.

Articles

Aufderheide, Patricia. "Cable Television and the Public Interest" Journal of Communication 42:1 (Winter 1992), 52- 65.

Aufderheide, Patricia. "Underground Cable: A Survey of Public Access Programming" AfterImage 22 (Summer 1994), 5-7.

Blau, Andrew. "The Promise of Public Access" The Independent 15 (April 1992), 22-26.

Boddy, William. "Alternative Television in the United States" Screen 31:1 (Spring 1990), 91-101.

Freedman, Eric. "From Excess to Access: Televising the Subculture" Spectator 14:1 (1993), 44-55.

Kellner, Douglas. "Public Access Television: Alternative Views" in American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives, ed. Donald Lazere (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).


Editor's note: R. Bruce Brasell is working on a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from New York University. Bruce grew up in Mobile and has returned to live while writing his dissertation which is on the imaging of the American south in film and video.

Anyone interested in starting a community organization to pursue the establishment of a public access channel in Mobile can contact Bruce at (334) 473-5370 or e-mail him at Bruce_Brasell@msn.com. Bruce hopes the City of Mobile will request a PEG access channel (if it has not done so already) and Comcast will provide it (because we do not have one now). Bruce says, "After all, the air waves are a natural resource like the national parks and lands and belong to all of us. We are just allowing that resource to be used by mass media companies like Comcast. The City of Mobile and its representatives have an ethical obligation as our steward to seek the interest of our community, not that of Comcast, especially when it is already right there in the franchise to which Comcast agreed and it is just not being implemented. Lets implement it!"


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