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The Best TV on the Block

By Belinda Acosta, Fri., Feb. 22, 2008

The Cartoon Network has been promoting its Adult Swim programming on a billboard above the intersection of Guadalupe and Martin Luther King Boulevard for a while now. The billboard first caught my attention when it was promoting Aqua Teen Hunger Force emblazoned with this text: "TV is not a right. It's a privilege!"

I wondered: Was this a punch line only fans of Aqua Teen Hunger Force would get? A snarky non sequitur? Or a wake-up call, subversively tacked onto a promotion for the late-night cartoon? I wanted to believe the latter, especially after I was invited to facilitate a panel at the Texas Community Media Summit on March 1. (Go to www.texascommunitymedia.org/content/summit-agenda.)

As I mentioned last week, the summit aims to bring together Texas media makers, stakeholders, activists, and advocates from across a full spectrum of community media: art, theatre, print, radio, film, television, and the Internet. Organizing the event is ChannelAustin (formerly Public Access Community Television), along with the Dallas iMedia Network, Houston Media Source TV, and the Texas Media Empowerment Project. The purpose is to gather Texas media makers to discover common goals and develop collaborative projects. This is all good. But another goal needs to be how to make the average person realize what's at stake on the local and the national media scene and why it affects their lives.

For example: In December of last year, the Federal Communications Commission moved to eliminate the 30-year-old ban on cross-media ownership. Aggressively shepherded by FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, the new ruling allows newspapers in the Top 20 markets to buy any broadcast station that isn't among the Top 4 in its market. While that doesn't sound bad on the surface, the repercussions for smaller, local media include more disenfranchisement, less localism, and further commercialization of news and information.

TV Eye

Why didn't you hear about this? Probably because it didn't get Page One play in any news media. Even if you did hear about it, you didn't think it affected you. One of two (constantly) dissenting voices on the FCC, Commissioner Michael J. Copps called the decision one that "would make George Orwell proud."

Closer to home, the Texas Cable Association recently won an appeal to sue the state of Texas, challenging state law that opened the market to more competition. Their complaint is that new competitors (e.g., telephone companies) do not have to follow the same regulations cable companies must follow. One requirement in particular is the franchise agreement between Time Warner Cable and the city of Austin. It is under this agreement that ChannelAustin functions, mostly in equipment funds. While the franchise agreement doesn't expire until 2011, ChannelAustin fears that if the Texas Cable Association lawsuit is successful, it will allow Time Warner to get out of the franchise agreement and that money (to the tune of $1 million in capital equipment funds) will be lost.

There is no lack of ill will in this town toward Time Warner Cable. However, it's ChannelAustin that has the larger public-relations dilemma. Some people have told me cable access TV doesn't "look like real TV," meaning the production values are low. This is true, for a variety of factors related to the ongoing recovery from bad past management. While ChannelAustin is working to improve production values, the larger public-relations dilemma is that few value public-access TV to begin with.

To understand the value of local access media, think of it this way:

Let's say a coffee shop opens on Congress Avenue. They put a sign in the window that says, "The Best Coffee in Austin." Another shop opens across the street. They put a sign in the window that says, "The Best Coffee in Texas!" Still another shop opens next door to that one. They put a sign in the window that says, "The Best Coffee in the Country!" And then another shop opens, a small mom-and-pop operation. They put a sign in their shop that reads, "The Best Coffee on This Block."

Size does not automatically equal quality. In this coffee-shop scenario, it's the appeal to the local, the immediate, and the personal that wins the patronage. Local access media should work in the same way. It is not a closed community; it is open to whomever comes in the door and receives appropriate training. ChannelAustin is changing. What isn't changing quickly enough is how the public values its access media.

Take some time to think about that earlier statement I saw on the billboard, except this time, say it this way:

"Public access media is a right and a privilege."

What are you doing to protect your rights and make the most of this unique opportunity?

As always, stay tuned.

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