Cable television is the cause of, and solution to, all of the nation's problems. Television may have destroyed the mythic era in which we used to go out and see friends, have mostly awkward but occasionally interesting dates, and connect with our extended families. But cable has its redemptive quality as well. Thanks to the development of cheap, sophisticated video recording equipment, we can make TV as well as watch it. Since we no longer participate directly in democracy but watch it on television at best, broadcast activists have long hoped that the proliferation of public-access channels would encourage ordinary citizens to express their political views with charmingly low-budget programs of their own, and democracy would still be a participatory phenomenon. It may not be real life, but it's as close as we're likely to get.
But having the technology is one thing -- getting the cable companies to give local cities precious channels from their spectrum is another. Fifteen years ago, when both the technology and the public's understanding of its potential were in their infancy, cities around the country signed long-term contracts with cable companies whose names, thanks to the volatile nature of this industry, you've long forgotten. They've been kicking themselves ever since.
Take a city like Berkeley, whose fetishizing of democracy is so notorious that you might as well insert your own punch line here -- we all have one, after all. The schedule for the city's public-access channel is crammed with people producing everything from shows on sexuality and disability to a program titled The Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party. But Berkeley runs its public-access studio on its own dime, and city officials realized too late that they could have squeezed their cable provider for funds, as countless other cities have now done. Ever since 1992, when Berkeley signed a fifteen-year contract, it's been waiting for an opportunity to renegotiate. "We have a horrible contract," City Councilman Kriss Worthington says. "It's coming up for renegotiation, and hopefully the city will do a better job at getting a better deal than we've got right now."
That's a lesson the suburbs of Contra Costa County have taken to heart. Beginning in 1995, cities around the country have been abandoning the tactic of negotiating individual contracts with cable providers. Instead, they've started assembling into consortia to bring more muscle to the bargaining table. In 1999, with their respective contracts still years away from expiring, CoCo County along with Concord, Walnut Creek, and five other cities banded together to squeeze a better deal out of AT&T, their cable provider at the time. Six years and one merger later, the coalition is close to finalizing a deal with Comcast -- which gobbled up AT&T's cable operation in the interim.
As far as cities are concerned, the gold standard in cable contracts is two-pronged: They want both a 5 percent share of the profits, and an annual pot of money to fund their local public-access, educational, and government channels, or "PEG" operations. Because the contract isn't yet a done deal, neither Comcast nor the cities in the consortium could comment on outstanding issues. But Peter Dragovich, Concord's director of city management and the city's man at the Comcast bargaining table, says that the Contra Costa consortium has managed to secure an important concession; Comcast will provide $900,000 a year for the next fifteen years to fund public and government programming, including operating a Walnut Creek studio where any resident of the eight cities in the deal can show up, produce, and air their own television programming. "It's better than some, but not as good as others," Dragovich says of the PEG money.
The notion of joining forces with other cities intrigues Worthington, who has long been the Berkeley City Council's most persistent critic of its cable contract. But according to Roger Miller, a senior management analyst in the city's IT department and one of Berkeley's main negotiators with Comcast, such bargaining consortia don't always get what they want, and their promise may be overstated: "I don't think it's simply [that] more cities is better than one city," he says. In any case, it's impossible for Berkeley to form alliances with its neighbors; Oakland has already signed a new contract, and technical reasons preclude Albany from negotiating in partnership with Berkeley.
But having the capacity to produce your own TV shows is one thing -- actually using it is another. Roughly 250,000 people live in the cities bound by Contra Costa's consortium. These residents already have a studio and will soon have $900,000 a year to play with. What have they done with this precious resource so far? Next to nothing. The schedule for central Contra Costa's public-access channels is a sea of bulletin-board announcements and infomercials. Only about ten hours a week is dedicated to actual content. Most "community" programming consists of syndicated shows or conspiracy theories courtesy of Lyndon LaRouche. A few locals produce their own shows; Ted Fuller profiles Contra Costa theater acts, for example, and one Orinda gentleman offers advice on creating the perfect wedding in an adorable program called Tying the Knot. But other programs are simply church services or shows dedicated to positive thinking.
You may think Berkeley's noisy, didactic, self-righteous public-access culture is hardly better -- but at least there's something on the air. Residents put on shows such as BanLao TV, a Laotian-affairs show whose logo is a hut on stilts with an antenna jutting from the thatched roof. The ubiquitous quadriplegic Frank Moore incessantly airs his hypersexualized performance art, and one host airs a program called Joy Time, in which she simply talks about whatever's on her mind. Very little airtime is abandoned to bulletin board announcements, the basic staple of Contra Costa's broadcast schedule.
As Roger Miller notes, the world of public access looks very different from what its original supporters had in mind. Activists thought that it would be the voice of the voiceless, a mass of people finally liberated to speak their mind about politics and public affairs. But what public-access TV really did was exemplify the character of each community, many of which weren't clamoring for political empowerment after all. "The idea was to foster more diverse viewpoints, greater community participation in the [political] process," Miller says. "That was the promise. The question now is did it really emerge? In certain cases, yes. And in other cases, it's changed in orientation. And what it's done is it's focused much more on very local interests."
Broadcast activists saw cable as the opportunity for people to express themselves politically. But in Contra Costa County, at least, fifteen years of public-access television has proved that most people simply don't feel like it.
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