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U-Verse’s Public Access “Ghetto” Raises Protests

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AT&T is facing backlash from supporters of PEG (public, educational, and government) channels around the country because of how the company has bundled them on its AT&T U-Verse IPTV service. But in a world that includes YouTube, is it time to cut cable (and fiber) carriers some slack on this issue?

Complaints to the FCC ask the regulatory agency to step in on behalf of PEG supporters angry not because AT&T has cut out PEG programming—which it is required to carry by law—but because the company has crammed all of them onto channel 99 and created a menu by which viewers can choose the area relevant to their public access needs.

Most of the programming on these channels seems limited to local high school events, local government meetings, announcements, and of course, local performers of various stripes. Critics argue U-Verse’s channel 99 is a public access ghetto, stripped of closed captioning and second audio programming, and none of the programming is DVR-able. What’s more, unlike other channels—where the money is made—PEG programming fans have to seek it out, rather than scanning content listings.

Historically, public access has also launched national TV careers. You can thank (or blame) PEG programming for the likes of Tom Green and Elvira.

It is arguably likely that AT&T is technically in violation of 1984’s Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act by exercising “editorial control” over public access channels.

 U-Verse's Public Access
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If you remember the earliest alarms surrounding Network Neutrality, this scenario was exactly what stoked fears among advocates—an ISP like AT&T relegating content to ghettos or “dirt roads” and deciding for the end user which content comes front and center. Given behavior like this (and stated intentions by AT&T execs) those fears are valid, especially if the model is extended to the Internet.

Past legislation regarding public access was created when TV was by far the most important/prevalent medium, and was needed to ensure an outlet for those without meaningful ways to have their voices heard. Public access was citizen journalism before citizen journalism was cool.

In that respect, the spirit that protected public access channels should be extended to the Internet to prevent carriers from exerting control over content, giving citizen journalism its deserved grander scope. AT&T offering dumb pipes is a far better option for everyone than AT&T creating a new kind of cable TV.

The coming TV/Web convergence will require a new set of rules as the old world falls away, and for that reason we should carefully pick our battles. Currently, citizen journalism was never so easy to set up. Blogs, social networks, online video abound and provide a viable (not just viable, crushing) alternative to old-fashioned (nearly obsolete) cable public access models.

The argument for enforcing cable public access laws have revolved around the percentage of the population still without access to computers or to the Internet—heck, after a decade of trying, the government’s still having a hard time getting people switched over to digital TV—and the cost of computers, cameras, and other equipment citizen journalism requires.

But costs are falling rapidly. Computers aren’t any more expensive than TV these days. Digital cameras are getting cheaper too.

All that is beside the point, though. During this media transition phase, it’s more important to ensure unfettered public access to the Internet and competition in the broadband space than it is to split hairs about how a TV provider treats obsolete must-carry channels.

I say let AT&T have this one, and let’s make sure the right legislation is in place to prevent them from doing the same with the Internet. 
 

 

U-Verse’s Public Access “Ghetto” Raises Protests
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  • http://www.pedestrians.org John Z Wetmore

    There is a misperception that video sharing websites on the Internet have made public access television obsolete.

    However, I have not seen any television networks abandoning their broadcast and cable channels because video is now available over the Internet.

    If AT&T thinks bundling public access channels under a convoluted IPTV system on Channel 99 is so great, why don’t they bundle all the broadcast channels under a similar system on Channel 98?

    There is still a great value in having a television channel. It is still the way most Americans spend a majority of their tv viewing time. In my opinion, public access television deserves nothing less.

  • Todd Thayer

    Well, before I started this I went and looked up the word ‘obsolete’. Definition #1 from dictionary.com states “1. no longer in general use; fallen into disuse: an obsolete expression.”

    I’m curious about what basis you used to evaluate the traffic at your local access organization, or the amount of viewers who watch your local municipal meetings or school events to determine that access is (nearly) obsolete.

    Did you call any access centers to see if usage has fallen off?

    If you had called here, you would have found that our volunteer / internship rate (mostly middle / H.S. students) has more than doubled in the last year, that programming submissions are at an all time (over 8 years) high, and that we’re looking to expand to covering live H.S. sports. Events that don’t get covered locally, because there are no local broadcasters. We’re also adding classes on how to submit content to web video hosts, how to use content creation software, how to operate a full three camera studio with live call-in functionality. Last time I checked, YouTube didn’t offer that.

    Maybe we’re an anomaly (you could ask the over 3,000 members of the Alliance for Community Media, and I think you’d find we’re not), but access in Ventura is stronger than ever, which leads me to ask why you would spout the AT&T company line?

    I’m also not sure about your characterization of tying access regs to internet saturation. Access is about providing users a voice in the television medium, a forum to present views that wouldn’t be available in network / commercial TV.

    But all that’s really smoke being blown somewhere. The real issue here is this – all channels should be treated the same – whether network, local or local access.

    Sounds an awful lot like the governing principles of net neutrality to me. Would you allow an internet carrier to discriminate and treat one uses data differently than another?

    Oh, that’s right, you wouldn’t – you want all info treated the same way.

    Same goes for access.

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  • http://home.comcast.net/~westonstudio/site/?/home/ Paul Berg

    It is no surprise you feature a photo of Mike Meyers from his mocking routines about two public access geeks in their Mom’s basement. That was now decades ago! Your analysis of the value of public access is dead wrong, and worse, dismissive of its true value. “Most of the programming on these channels seems limited to local high school events, local government meetings, announcements, and of course, local performers of various stripes.” Limited?!!! We in public access don’t label this programming as bold or innovative — although sometimes it is. We label it as the basis of building community in the technological haze of advances which is the 21st Century. Unless I’m mistaken, Comcast, AT&T, Time-Warner and the other cable operators have no plans soon to end the sale of cable TV to customers. YouTube doesn’t scare these corporate giants, and they continue to pay for access TV. Like it or not, people watch TV, in the comfort of their sofa, for news, entertainment, opinions, etc. etc. And, yes, they channel surf. What looks good? A re-run of “Murder She Wrote” on some specialty cable channel? The latest new episode of CSI? The PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer? Or my house on the list for public taking by eminent domain??? The options to sit in that recliner and watch YouTube are not only unavailable to most these days, but don’t strike close to home for most viewers. YouTube is a massive, global zoo of everything, from everywhere, by anyone. Compare that to watching your city council vote to OK a new chemical plant next to your favorite park. I know of several instances when voters saw a topic of extreme interest to them on a public access live cablecast from the council meeting, got up from their chair and drove down to the meeting to voice their concerns. Who gets up for something on YouTube, let alone leave the house?

    Access TV should not be relegated to a “click & find” screen, like searching for you bill, or an adult feature in some hotel room!

    You are obviously young and a technophile. I am an old fart technophile, in that I teach people how to use equipment to make TV shows to watch on TV and I’m over 50.

    In your quest for the ultimate in techno-oddities (i.e. “Twitter Community Crowns Official Twitter Babe”) you seem to have forgotten that, all across America, people with busy lives and high-tech jobs still go down to town hall to make their views heard, or more importantly, represent the local view as volunteer town electeds; still go to the high school musicals to support the aspiration of creative youth, and still go out and vote. The majority of Americans are still passionate about our democratic ideals and institutions. You clearly miss the entire point of public access. When was the last time you got involved in participatory government in your local city or town?

  • Jonathan

    It makes no sense to suggest, as Jason does here, that we have to choose between Net Neutrality and equal treatment for community TV.

    Cable companies want to get rid of both for the same reason: making huge piles of money is more important to them than the public’s interest in diverse communications outlets.

    Likewise, we should be supporting Public Access and Net Neutrality for the same reasons – they protect at least some level of fairness in electronic media.

    While it’s easy (and not very creative) to poke fun at Public access for being silly or boring, the fact is that in many cities and towns across the country, there are more hours per week of locally-produced public affairs content on public access than on all local broadcast stations combined. These resources are often vital communications lifelines for elders, non-English speakers and people with disabilities.

    Failing to oppose AT&T’s unfair treatment of Public Access in its U-verse system is saying that these communities don’t matter (not to mention the Tom Greens and Elviras of tomorrow!)

  • Keith Jajko

    How would I contact AT&T to at least have my community listed on the slim list of communities that have listings on Channel 99 in the Greater Los Angeles area? I mean, 8 million people, 11 selections??

    I don’t think one channel for every quarter-million or so people meets the law’s requirements.

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