Immortalized in the film Wayne’s World, public access television surged in the late 80’s and early 90’s promising communities access to produce and distribute their own unfiltered content. The Pacific Northwest remains one of the more vibrant regions for public access TV, with at least 23 stations in Washington and Oregon alone. These stations provide a space for local community members to learn about media production while at the same helping to produce and struggle over a sense of local and regional identity. Recently, the city of Bellingham, WA, located almost directly in between Seattle, WA and Vancouver, BC, joined the ranks of those communities to have public access TV. On July 21, 2014, Bellingham’s City Council voted unanimously to approve a 12 month pilot project to air public-access programming on Bellingham’s government and education station, BTV10. When the City Council reconvened for their August 11 meeting, they moved forward with the project by approving $50,000 to be set aside for training and equipment (e.g. cameras, software, etc.).
The news of a public access station in Bellingham comes after decades of work amongst local media activists who have long agitated for expanding the city’s government and educational programming to include a public component. The city had a fairly vibrant public access station up until 1999 when TCI sold its Bellingham franchise to AT&T, the latter of which chose not to support a public access station. The city’s first television station, KVOS, also provided its studios for public affairs and public access programming up until 2006 when they ceased to produce local programs.
Although they have a longer history, the rise of public access TV is in part attributed to the Cable Communication Policy Act of 1984, which allows local governments to require cable operators to fund and provide public, educational, and government (or PEG) access in exchange for a cable franchise in the community. Writing at the height of public access TV in 1987, media and cultural critic Douglas Kellner predicted, “The rapid expansion of public access television in recent years provides new possibilities for progressive individuals and groups to produce video programming that cuts against the conservative programming that dominates mainstream television in the United States.” In the current bevy of techno-utopian discourse surrounding the internet and user-generated content as democratizing forces against the increasingly conglomerated mainstream media industry, it can be hard to see where public access television and the possibilities and promises that Kellner speaks to might fit in. Indeed, critics of Bellingham’s recent vote to approve a public access station don’t understand why YouTube isn’t enough.
Yet, despite critics who claim public access TV is an anachronism in the digital age where YouTube offers the proverbial public soapbox on a global scale, however, there still exists over 3,000 public access stations across the United States. And research shows that audiences still watch and desire local, community content through public access TV stations; viewership is especially high amongst racial and ethnic minorities and low-income communities.
This is not to say that public access TV in the Wayne’s World format is going to cut it in the digital age. Public access advocates have had to adapt the medium to new media convergences. Many stations have turned to the “community media” model rather than public access TV to signal their multi-platform approach to using broadcasting, digital streaming, and other forms of networked media. This is, likely, the direction that the Bellingham station will ultimately take once it gets off the ground.
A remaining debate about the station in Bellingham is what kind of content will be provided on the station. Some critics fear the station could end up providing inappropriate (read pornographic) or offensive (read hate groups) content, which would be particularly thorny for the City Council since they are the de facto administers of the station as per the current legislation. The Council would like to avoid associating itself with the content on the station and the perception that they endorse the content. The news around town is that they are looking for a local, third-party non-profit to run the station, but they rejected the only proposal that was submitted by the Center for New Media on the grounds that it did not demonstrate sufficient fiscal responsibility. One possibility for another non-profit administrator could be the Pickford Film Center, the city’s local independent cinema, which would seem to be a logical choice given their expertise at choosing content and their recent commitment to fostering a local film production community.
The idea that the public should have free access to produce, distribute, and consume local content has remained the cornerstone of community media, and this is what is so significant about the recent victory in Bellingham to get a public access station. The new station holds many possibilities for the local Bellingham community, perhaps most significantly for those interested in media production. The station offers the possibility for local film, television, and music producers to distribute their content to the local community. Although critics of the station argue that the TV station is unnecessary since media producers could just distribute their content online, these critics miss the point that the station (which could also distribute online content) is about serving the local community. The keyword here is local because, as media scholar Christopher Ali has pointed out (ALI), the significance of public access, or community media, is less a matter of the content that is produced or consumed and much more so a matter of the process and practice of producing a community and a sense of place through the production and consumption of local media. Whereas YouTube tends to privilege the idea of any content from anywhere, what is unique about community and public access media is that it is content from somewhere in particular.
This Bellinghamster looks forward to seeing what the local community has in store on the station, and I am anxiously awaiting the September 15 start date for the airing of content. For now, Bellingham will only stream 6 hours of public access content on the government station, but the hope is that more people will get involved to eventually have a full blown station. To get involved, you might consider attending one of the city’s informational sessions, on which you can find more information regarding dates/times here.
Helen Morgan Parmett is an Assistant Professor at Western Washington University in the Communication Studies Department. Her research and teaching focus on critical media studies, media and urban space, production studies, and cultural policy.