ALEC's new victim: Public-access TV

Earlier this month in a cozy Madison community center, a diverse crowd of three-dozen milled about, drank beer, ate pizza and listened to live music. Food, alcohol, friends, a guitar duo called “Folk You” — all the makings of a festive evening were in place at the fundraiser for WYOU, the city's only public-access television station. The mood, however, was less than jubilant; after all, the soiree wasn't being called “Save WYOU” for nothing.

“It's frighteningly close to crisis mode,” said Barbara Vedder, the chair of the non-profit station's board.

Near-empty coffers have indeed made times tough at WYOU; today, its sole revenue stream is a trickle of membership dues. The staff has to operate on a volunteer basis and the station's aging equipment can't be replaced. Vedder's estimate is that, should things continue as they are, WYOU can persevere for six to nine more months before the final curtain.

WYOU's predicament is unremarkable: Public, educational and government (PEG) access television stations across the country are shutting down in the hundreds. And make no mistake—this is a big deal. What's at stake is not just a valuable (small-d) democratic forum, but the last bastion of our airwaves being used for the public good.

But why is PEG access in decline in the first place?

It all relates back to one thing: cable franchising fees. Historically, local jurisdictions have awarded franchises to cable companies, allowing them to have the rights to be the exclusive suppliers for a community. As part of the bargain, those communities also obligated the companies to support PEG access programming by providing funds, facilities, and channels to use — all totally legal under the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984.

For some communities, the paradigm has changed. For one thing, more local governments have to reconcile with budget shortfalls, and the franchising fees formerly spent on PEG access have been diverted to other expenditures, like paying public employees. Another reason is that the FCC curtailed funding for PEG; they ruled in the mid-2000s that many franchising fees were too high, and needed to be reduced.

But really, those changes are red herrings: The real culprit is something called cable franchising legislation. Almost half of the states have now passed franchising laws to lower barriers to entry for new cable operators — in other words, Verizon and AT&T. They create a single state franchising authority, so cable operators need only go to the state to win franchising rights, instead of going from community to community. The kicker is that these bills also phase out requirements for cable operators to support PEG access.

A bunch of weirdly similar free-market-oriented bills getting passed in state legislatures at the same time? It's almost like they were copying some conservative think tank's model legislation!

All right, I'll just say it: It's ALEC.

All said and done, most PEG access operators lucked out; they're in states without a franchising law, and are in the clear. But a large minority—including WYOU, following the passage of Wisconsin's Video Competition Act of 2007—have taken a big hit.

Which is far from a big deal for those who tout the free market, and therefore love these laws. For example, Adam Summers, a policy analyst at a libertarian think tank, laments in a similarly-minded magazine called The Freeman that cable companies have been “forced to maintain a number of [PEG channels] that their viewers may not want and/or that may not be economically justifiable.”

But here's what Summers is forgetting: Television is a public good, not a competitive marketplace.

The people own the airwaves—not AT&T, not Time Warner, not any of the networks. Certainly the private sector has come to control them, but that's only because the public allows them to be franchised. In other words, our airwaves aren't necessarily beholden to what nets high ratings or big profits.

And that's where PEG access comes in. The educational and government operators (the E and the G of “PEG”) make learning and civic engagement more accessible to communities by broadcasting educational media and local government meetings. And public-access (the “P”) creates a community forum, making a soapbox available to anyone who has something to say. Creating a space for civic debate and deliberative democracy on a local scale is a service that no private broadcaster can provide.

So here's what you can do if you want these spaces preserved: Egg on your elected representatives in Congress to revive the Community Access Preservation Act. This piece of legislation was introduced by then-Representatives Tammy Baldwin and Steve LaTourette (now retired) to restore the franchise fees historically provided to PEG access operators. The bill stalled in the last session, and with both sponsors having left the House, there needs to be someone new to sponsor it.

It's a longshot. But for the sake of keeping that last sliver of our airwaves a true public good, it's worth a fight.

Erik Lorenzsonn is an editorial intern at The Progressive.