Preserving the People's Channels

By Gloria Tristani, former Federal Communications Commission commissioner. Originally published in the Midland (Michigan) Daily News.

Public, Educational, and Governamental (PEG) channels throughout Michigan have long delivered diverse community and local programming over cable and other video networks. These channels owe their existence to the franchise agreements that municipalities negotiate with video providers in exchange for allowing the providers to use the public rights-of-way. PEG access channels empower individuals and groups to use the media to educate and enrich their communities. It is television by the people and for the people. In Midland last summer the access channel, MCTV Network, together with the fire department produced a popular video on fireworks safety which is now used by many government agencies including FEMA. MCTV has also partnered with community agencies such as United Way by producing Cancer Services, which programming has touched many lives.

MCTV and other PEG access channels allow citizens to see their local governments and leaders at work. They are also places where young and older people can learn to use and produce media. At a time when we see the major media companies are becoming increasingly consolidated — with the cable behemoth Comcast about to absorb NBC/Universal — it is refreshing to see the people's channels in action.

PEG channels, however, are at risk nationwide. In 2006 Michigan passed the Uniform Video Services Local Franchise Act which established a statewide uniform franchising agreement eliminating local control and eroding PEG funding sources. A number of other states followed suit and in Washington, D.C., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) further chipped away at local control. While state and federal actions may have been aimed to spur competition among video providers they failed to produce the intended results and instead were detrimental to PEG channels and to consumers. The combined state and federal actions undercut PEG funding and limited local governments' ability to require video providers to create new PEG channels.

State and federal action and inaction have also allowed new video providers, such as AT&T with its U-verse product, to deliver PEG channels in a format inferior to that by which it delivers other channels. AT&T makes finding and accessing PEG channels difficult. The channels have been moved to the upper tier — 99 — and the viewer must negotiate through a series of time consuming menus to reach the PEG channels. AT&T further delivers the PEG channels in a resolution that is of a lower quality to that in which it delivers the local commercial channels.

Citizens and viewers who value community media should be concerned but they should know that they can change the PEG picture. From my vantage as a former FCC commissioner I would suggest two federal avenues to pursue to ensure the vibrancy of PEG. One avenue requires congressional action, and the other requires FCC action. Congress should pass H.R. 3745, the Community Access Preservation (CAP) Act. The legislation, introduced by Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., and cosponsored by 30 other members, would among other things permit PEG funding fees to be used for any purpose including for operating expenses; ensure that video operators deliver PEG channels to subscribers without additional charges and at the same level of quality as they deliver local commercial television channels; require that the FCC investigate and report to Congress on the impact of state franchising laws; and, in certain circumstances, restore PEG funding to historical support levels.

While there may not be time left to pass the CAP Act this year passing it should be a priority for the next Congress and particularly if as expected, the Congress tackles rewriting the communications act. Passing federal legislation to preserve and strengthen the people's channels is a bipartisan issue which should be embraced by representatives of all political parties; and Michiganders should demand that their representatives in Congress get fully on board.

Citizens and viewers should also demand that the FCC take action to preserve and strengthen PEG. As it stands the FCC has been sitting on a Petition filed in January 2009 requesting that the FCC rule that PEG channels be treated and delivered in the same manner as local commercial broadcast channels. The Petition is aimed at redressing AT&T's discriminatory treatment of PEG channels, but an FCC ruling would send a clear message to all video providers that PEG channels must be treated fairly. The FCC's failure to act, now going on almost two years, is an abdication of its obligation to ensure that the public and the public interest are served first.

Despite the obstacles, PEG channels continue to serve their local communities and provide unique opportunities to average Americans to produce programming of shows that look like Americans. It is a powerful idea that part of the media should exist directly in the hands of the public. Congress and the FCC need to do their part in preserving this bastion of American democracy.