Public access television – also known as community television or open channels – is a form of television in which citizens produce programs and bypass corporations, governments, journalists, and other gatekeepers to transmit their programs directly to audiences. Proponents of public access television promote it as a remedy to commercialism, centralization, and lack of diversity in television systems around the world. As a systematic alternative to commercial or government-supported television, public access television first emerged in Canada and the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Public access channels have since appeared in hundreds of communities in North America, Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania, although public access outlets have never attracted audiences large enough to rival those of professional television systems.
The emergence of public access television in Canada and the United States was closely associated with three developments: the appearance of media-activist movements that promoted public access television as a means to nurture democracy and localism; the development of lightweight and relatively inexpensive equipment that facilitated video production by amateurs; and the construction of urban cable systems with channels available for public access programming. Beginning in 1966, the Canadian National Film Board sponsored documentaries in which citizens voiced their opinions about social and economic issues. The concept of public access was wedded to cable television in 1970 when a citizens’ organization in Thunder Bay, Ontario, persuaded the local government to negotiate for community access on the local cable system. In 1971, the Thunder Bay model was adopted nationally when the Canadian Radio and Television Board stipulated that public access be a part of the country’s burgeoning cable system.
In the United States, media activists campaigned for similar access to cable systems. Because the country’s young cable industry needed allies in its regulatory battles with over-the-air broadcasters, it formed an alliance with public access advocates. When private companies negotiated the rights to wire local communities for cable, the agreement often included the reservation of channels for local public access, as well as channels for local governmental and educational programs. Frequently, the companies also agreed to provide public access producers with facilities and video equipment. In 1972, the Federal Communications Commission began requiring access channels in most local cable systems.
Produced largely on scant budgets, Canadian and US public access programs vary widely in format, content, and production quality, as do many public access programs around the world. Many address political or social issues, while others are purely entertainment. The most successful programs have attracted viewers with their originality and their willingness to address subjects ignored by other television outlets.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, some of the world’s most robust public access channels were in the Federal Republic of Germany. Again, they took root with the widespread advent of cable, in this case in West Germany in the 1980s. Germany’s public access channels grant nondiscriminatory access to citizens and provide free production facilities. Unlike the cash-strapped systems in North America, the Federal Republic’s “open channels” receive a portion of the subscription fees that Germans pay for television services. These funds support studios, technicians, and equipment for public access productions. Open channel services have also been established on local cable systems in Sweden and the Netherlands, and, to a lesser extent, in other European countries.
Although public access television is often associated with local communities, there have also been attempts to reach national audiences. In South Korea, the Broadcast Law of 2000 requires KBS 1, a national broadcast network, to set aside a small portion of its schedule for programs produced by the public. In 2002, South Korea’s RTV network inaugurated the world’s first satellite television channel devoted to public access programming. In 2006, Australia’s Satellite Community Television (SCTV) began beaming multiethnic, multilanguage public access programs nationwide. Previously, SCTV had been limited to local broadcasts on an over-the-air channel in Sydney.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the future of public access television is uncertain. With over 1,000 local cable channels devoted to public access, the United States had the most extensive system in the world in 2006. However, US cable channels remain chronically underfunded and face regulatory challenges. In 1979, in the case of FCC vs. Midwest Video, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission could no longer require cable companies to include public access channels in local cable systems. Since that decision, local governments have had to choose whether to negotiate for public access channels and production facilities in their franchise agreements with private cable companies. The now entrenched cable industry continues to lobby the US Congress to eliminate local governments’ authority to negotiate such concessions. Public access television faces similar regulatory and economic threats in many nations, and also faces the challenge of adapting to new media such as satellite television and the world wide web. Nonetheless, the notion of unfiltered citizen access to television is likely to remain attractive to critics of professional media.
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