Re: Cable Access

From: Bernard Roddy (email suppressed)
Date: Mon Feb 12 2007 - 14:15:12 PST

Alain, you say that cable profiders just require that access stations meet technical standards. If you are assuming there to be local control of cable access stations that are also stations suffering from technical problems, then the issue you raise is beside the point. After all, it has then been conceded that cable access should continue operation and receive the fees and facilities necessary. Maybe they should receive more than that.
  When you say cable stations need to diversify to reach their own viewers, I think I am missing something. Supposing many people who produce content do not subscribe, there still isn't any clear reason why commercial content providers need to get involved. Is there an argument here that circumventing local control is in the interest of local communities?
  You object that local producers tend to emulate commercial projects. Let's keep in mind the conditions on cable access users. They are prohibited from producing advertising or any content with a commercial purpose. You note later that access station engineers attend the NAB conference to keep abreast of technological changes. This should either constitute a criticism of those engineers for trying to emulate commercial projects, or it should be considered only incidental to the topic under discussion. They might as well be attending Hollywood movies for ideas.
  I am having some trouble with what strikes me as a denigration of local content providers' productions and interests. The programming is not very "interesting," you say, but we ought to remember who is speaking. There is a somewhat objectionable cast to your assessment of value, or at least a presumption to judge for all interested parties.
  But the substantive issue seems to be what response best addresses the perceived deficiencies. I fail to see how it serves the public interest (or artists' interests) to give up the only avenue for non-commercial broadcast that remains. How does relinquishing control over cable access increase creative production and distribution and improve the range of productions on offer?

40 Frames <email suppressed> wrote:
  Bernard Roddy:
> Let's consider the case for broadening
> the range of content (television, internet, phone). Commercial providers
> consider the local television affiliates and the public representatives
> who control access to the local video markets to be competitors, but
> competitors without the expenses incurred by a business that has to meet
> market demands. In other words, they object to requirements that they
> satisfy the conditions imposed by local public representatives before
> having access to those local markets. They see this as a requirement that
> they consult with their competitors, then provide technical facilities for
> them. This is a natural response on the part of someone who does not see
> himself or herself as a public service, but as a private one. However,
> these providers then argue that trashing the requirements imposed by local
> officials will improve the quality of content.

This is a good summation of the system/laws that require cable providers
to pay a franchise fee to the municipality where they set up shop. The
municipality is providing the cable company with access to "public" right
of ways in which to run their cable lines.

As you mention, these providers also argue for improving the "quality of
content", which cable providers simply defines as levels of
color/luminance and audio (ie, broadcast standards). The cable providers
mean very little beyond this when it comes to "content", just that it be
delivered based on certain technical standards. "Quality" to the cable
provider means technical standards, the same as it does to most of the
film industry.

> They argue that it will invite competition amongst commercial
> providers. The problem is that any such competitor will not be able to
> afford (and has no good private reason) to provide content that is not
> lucrative. If you watch the cable access programming in Chicago, you
> will see virtually all the African American churches and local
> communities actively involved. Look anywhere else for anywhere near that
> level of local involvement in media production and, I bet, you won't find
> it.

I get the drift of your arguement regarding "local content", but I think
if you look closer you see that it really just tokenism.

Attend an ACM conference and you will hear the same thing: representing
the under-represented. Sounds great on paper. In practice, 50-70% of
access programming is religious or church programming. Access Center's
tend to take a hands off approach to content and assume the role of a
neutral party in order to let their clients (the public) use their freedom
of speech. And the results are not so interesting.

I mentioned in my previous message a failure on the part of Access Centers
to provide adequate training, and I'm not talking about technical "here's
how to use Final Cut Pro" training. A majority of the producers who enter
access facilities are marginalized in terms of race and/or class, and
their tastes have been conditioned by a lifetime of broadcast television.
If the access center takes a hands off approach to training or simply
provides technical training, then those members of the community who go
through the training often end up emulating broadcast media forms without

Giving people access to equipment may seems like noble pursuit, but it
does little in the way of reforming the media, and often results in vanity
programming (those who want to create their own brand of celebrity) or
church programming (those who want to reach others with their "message").

> Of course, those who think a lot about whether the content or
> technology can compete with the high-rise service providers will be
> thinking about the move to HD or whatever. But this is part of the
> problem. Many communities are not represented, and an upgrade leaves
> them further behind.

The problem is one of infastructure. Many Access Centers have tape
libraries full of 3/4" and 1/2" tapes that will soon be difficult and
costly to playback for migration purposes. Entire libraries (thousands of
tapes and 10 of thousands of hours of programming) created without any
thought given to whether it will be "accessible" in 20 years. No community
archive, no insitutional memory.

The move to HD is partly driven by broadcasters and Access Centers exist
in the same ecosystem (market). Engineers from a number of Access Centers
attend NAB every year as they want to know the direction things are
heading so they can make the "proper" decisions when it comes to drafting
their capital budgets.

> It is certainly true that without "diversifying"
> their content, such a cable access video provider will not be able to
> compete for advertising that hopes to reach an affluent market. But
> cable access was never intended to compete with such content-providers,
> which are monopolized by white middle- and upper-class interests.

A large majority of people who create content for the cable channels which
Access Centers operate do not even subscribe to cable, and many of the
people who work at access centers also do not subscribe. I mentioned
"diversifying" their content as a method of reaching people in their own
communities. More folks will choose internet over cable subscriptions. I
was not referring to diversifying as a way to compete.

> About the representation of artists on cable access, here in Chicago
> programming has included work curated by individuals from the School of
> the Art
> Institute of Chicago. The problem would be addressed by expanding the
> notion of art and by greater investment in public media, not by
> abdicating to a market-driven commercial upgrade.

I should have qualified my comments by saying $$$upporting artists, not
even for work that is considering "social interest".

Access Centers do not pay for programming by artists. They show it for
free, but this does little in the way of support when there are so many
other venues that will show work for free. How about paying for some of
that programming? SWAMP has a program where they pay for artist created
programs (selected by a panel process) and broadcast it on PBS throughout
Texas. Access Centers would be smart to follow SWAMP's lead. More than
talking about art, paying for it will help to sustain it.


Alain LeTourneau
Pamela Minty
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Portland, OR 97214
United States

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