March 21–28, 2002
Must See TV
After 19 years of broken promises, advocates for community-access television are suing the city for their place on the box.
In 1998, CEFN started its own call-in radio show — first on WNWR and then on WHAT. Hill was so pleased with the show’s success that the following year she investigated the possibility of airing a television show for Christian singles. Hill had heard that many cable companies operate public-access stations. So she contacted Comcast Cablevision, now Comcast Cable Communications Inc., which has the monopoly on providing cable service to 75 percent of the city’s households. After hearing Comcast’s response, Hill realized there is no such thing as public-access TV in Philadelphia.
The airwaves may technically belong to everybody, but to the local advocates that means little in the cradle of liberty. Two years and much static later, CEFN may join nearly other 30 plaintiffs planning to sue the city over the issue. The lawsuit, to be filed in federal court March 21, demands that Philadelphia enforce an ordinance passed by City Council in 1983 that would create public-access channels. Nineteen years is long enough to wait, plaintiffs say.
More than 2,000 community-access TV stations operate around the country — including in nearby Bucks County and Radnor. In fact, Philadelphia is now the only major city in the country that hasn’t established a community-access TV channel. (New York operates four of them, Boston has two, and Pittsburgh’s channel has televised since 1984). Such channels allow regular Janes and Joes to get trained in video production and then create their own programs, which the station shows. Producers with their own equipment can drop off finished tapes.
Tune into public-access TV for a couple of lazy hours and you will see everything from music videos featuring aspiring rap stars and to talk shows taped in someone’s dingy basement to City Council candidates debating. The content may be informative or misleading, shocking or dull. But public-access advocates argue this is the beauty of such stations — the opportunity for anyone to entertain, self-promote or spout. Without commercial interruption.
Thanks to inexpensive computer software, even someone with meager resources can publish an underground magazine. And radio "pirates" have been stealing bandwidth and transmitting their own clandestine programs for decades. But television in Philadelphia is limited to the corporate media. And since the Federal Telecommunications Act was passed in 1996, media ownership has been cut in half, as large conglomerates continue to swallow up independent media. If the government — and U.S. citizens — legally own the airwaves, why is it that only the rich and powerful get to decide what they distribute?
City Council didn’t think it should be that way back in 1983, when cable wires were first being laid under Philadelphia’s streets. Council divided Philadelphia into four cable districts. Wade Cable and Greater Media were awarded one district each, and Comcast won a bid for the remaining two. (Greater Media sold out to Comcast in 1999, giving Comcast an additional 79,000 cable subscribers, and Time Warner purchased Wade that same year.)
When the franchise agreements were finalized Nov. 1, 1983, they mandated that cable providers set aside five channels specifically for public access. They also specified the creation of a citywide television training facility and studio (plus eight smaller neighborhood facilities) and the purchase of broadcast equipment. On top of this, a provision of the bill called for nine vans equipped with the technology for mobile TV transmissions. All of this was to be financed with a portion of franchise fees cable operators pay to the city.
The companies were to contribute start-up funds of $150,000 per cable district for the citywide public-access facility and $300,000 per district for the neighborhood studios. On top of that, $900,000 more was specified for equipment replacement at the various facilities. Operating funds were to be shared by the cable companies, with each chipping in $75,000 to $125,000 per franchise area. Considering that these deals are nearly two decades old, the money was more than chump change.
Then-Mayor Bill Greene signed the bill on Dec. 28, 1983. In it, a nonprofit corporation is structured to run the public-access facilities. The city, however, never filed the articles of incorporation with the commonwealth. And all that money earned by the cable companies and designated for public access has been flowing into the city’s general fund for 19 years. Comcast and Wade/Time Warner pay about $8 million annually in franchise fees, according to City Council testimony given by Comcast’s regional vice president, Edward Pardini, in June 1999.
Today, all that is needed to launch public access in Philadelphia is for Mayor John Street and City Council President Anna Verna to sign the articles. PCAC members say their repeated attempts to force the city’s hand have failed, and that they are filing the lawsuit reluctantly.
"We are organizers and activists, not lawyers," says Danielle Redden, PCAC campaign manager. "We would have preferred not to go this route. But we weren’t winning by talking to City Council and the mayor."
Since 1997, PCAC members have met individually with City Council members and the mayor, have testified at several public hearings and have staged protests around the city. In 1998, the group undertook a massive education campaign — they advertised on billboards and on the sides of SEPTA buses, and ran ads on Drexel University’s television station. Nothing has nudged government officials to act. PCAC opted to file its lawsuit in federal court, arguing that Philadelphians’ rights to free speech are being violated due to the lack of community-access TV.
"The lawsuit is simple," Redden says. "We are not even demanding money. We are only pointing out that the city is breaking its own law and officials should enact the 1983 ordinance."
Lawyer Sam Stretton has agreed to handle the case pro bono.
"This is a situation that boggles the mind," he says. "You’ve got the franchise fees in place and all the details laid out, and the city has chosen to ignore them. They dropped the ball in 1983, and we’re going to make sure they don’t drop it again."
Stretton characterizes public-access TV as "an accepted way for people to communicate" in other cities. The days of Dilworth and Clark riding neighborhoods on a flatbed truck, screaming into a megaphone are long over, he adds.
"Television is the modern political forum, and it’s how people get their ideas and messages known. There is no other way, unless you are rich and can flood the newspapers and networks with ads," Stretton says.
The mass appeal of public-access TV is evident by the diverse groups that have signed on to the lawsuit. The Philadelphia NAACP; both state and local chapters of the National Organization for Women; the Green Party; the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Task Force; Citizens for Consumer Justice; the Kensington Welfare Rights Union; independent filmmakers; a Comcast shareholder; and several media professors are among the 27 plaintiffs so far. City Councilmen David Cohen and Angel Ortiz are also considering signing on, given that they voted in favor of the ignored ordinance mandating public-access channels back in 1983.
As of press time, city officials had not been served with the lawsuit. But there has been no recent talk of establishing cable-access channels, says Vince Costello, director of communications and engineering services for the Philadelphia Department of Public Property.
When the federal government passed the Cable Communications Policy Act in October 1984, "that changed everything," Costello says. The law capped cable franchise fees at 5 percent of a company’s annual gross revenue. But when City Council passed the ordinance establishing public-access TV the previous year, Costello says, the city had intended to collect the money for operating the system ($75,000 to $125,000 per franchise area) "separate from" the 5 percent franchise fees. But the feds eliminated that option, he says.
"The 1983 ordinance was passed under a different set of circumstances," Costello says. "The city has to make a discrete decision and has decided, over the years, that it can’t afford public access.… The money collected as franchise fees goes to the general fund, and it always has."
When asked to comment on the lawsuit, Comcast responded with a written statement from Pardini.
"Comcast Cable fully complies with all of our public-access requirements, as outlined in our franchise agreement with the City of Philadelphia," he says. "The company pays annual franchise fees, which, in the absence of a Municipal Access Corporation, are allocated to the City’s General Fund."
Comcast informed church organizer Sherry Hill that none of its channels is designated for public access (digital cable carries up to 270 different channels, while standard cable offers up to 99 channels). But, they told her, the company does have a "leased access" channel that is open to the public for about $58 to $290 per hour of programming, and the show would air in all three of Comcast’s local franchise districts.
"For the lower price, the show would air around 2 a.m," Hill says.
And there’s another catch — anyone who uses it must take out a liability insurance policy, covering Comcast against charges of slander, defamation and copyright infringement. Hill knew CEFN couldn’t possibly afford that.
Hill began asking around for advice about producing an independent program without the presence of a public-access station. That’s how she learned, the hard way, that there are a lot of swindlers out there.
In this post-Sept. 11 world, some insist that public-access TV is needed more than ever.
When terrorists rammed two planes into the World Trade Center, the Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s (MNN) four channels went live with independent coverage of the attacks. And it continued to devote coverage exclusively to the attacks over the next several days. Although all the major networks and CNN were doing the same thing, there was a critical difference with MNN’s coverage: The information was unfiltered and unafraid of containing opinions that could be construed as anti-government or unpatriotic.
MNN provided a forum for regular New Yorkers — not just Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and government flaks — to express their views. If the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall were targeted, Philadelphia doesn’t possess the means to provide similar opportunities.
Ruben Abreu, station manager for MNN, says that community-operated TV can also serve as a de facto government watchdog. As an example, he hypothesizes that Philadelphia Police would never have dropped a bomb on the MOVE house if Philadelphia had public-access TV then. That’s because, Abreu says, officials would have been too concerned about the live footage and outraged commentaries that "average" citizens would have been able to air.
"If Philadelphia had public access in 1985, it would not have been possible to bomb people," Abreu asserts. "This is a movement created by people who want democracy and action.
MNN is a model in the world of public-access TV. The network’s $2.5 million budget is paid for by fees collected from local cable operators Time Warner and RCN. The companies contribute $5 a year for each of their combined 500,000 subscribers. MNN is run out of a three-story facility on West 59th Street, complete with state-of-the-art editing suites, three studios, a music and video library and computers available for research. MNN’s four channels broadcast 21 hours a day, with an estimated 150,000 viewers tuning in at any given time.
Any New Yorker can use MNN’s facilities after attending a series of orientation workshops on production and editing. But the demand is so great, there’s currently a six-month waiting list to attend the initial workshop. That’s because community access does more than provide people with broadcast skills, says Abreu, it benefits communities.
"For the first time, people can see their neighbors and friends on TV — not just in 30-second sound-bite fashion or in a negative light," Abreu says, "but engaged in real dialogue.
Abreu shares a favorite anecdote. Dirk Koning, executive director of the Community Media Center in Grand Rapids, Mich., was flying to New York. The passenger sitting next to him asked, "What do you do for a living?" And Koning confidently replied, "I help build community through media."
Through her ministry, Sherry Hill met an "independent producer" who offered to shoot and edit a pilot television show for CEFN. He told her and the show’s guests to meet him at his studio. When they arrived, they saw it was a studio all right — a studio apartment. The "set" consisted of a draped sheet as a backdrop and a flowerpot.
"Two of our guests saw how amateur it was and walked out," Hill recalls. And when she viewed the edited tape weeks later, Hill was horrified by the terrible audio and skipping video. "You’d have thought it was an episode of Bleeps and Blunders !" Hill says, finally able to laugh about the episode.
But she remained determined to get a CEFN show on the air. Eventually, in 2000, Hill’s search led her to a couple of television producers who claimed to be starting a local 24-hour gospel channel. She recalls their modern studio and impressive resources.
"We were really excited about working with this group," Hill says wistfully. Until the main producer told her he taped over the videos she gave him to watch and, ultimately, stopped returning her calls.
A few months later, Hill read an article about PCAC in the Germantown Courier . She decided her dream of producing a TV show was worth one more phone call.
During Mayor Street’s first few months in office, he hosted a series of "town-hall meetings" across the city. As Street himself worded it, he desired to hear "directly from you, the citizens of Philadelphia." One of these forums was held Feb. 9, 2000, in a West Philadelphia elementary school. The auditorium was so packed with people anxious to ask questions about the city’s schools, abandoned homes and sports stadiums that a throng of folks loitered in the parking lot, waiting for seats.
But a handful of activists who did manage to squeeze into the room had another issue on their minds. PCAC members wanted to know when the city planned to follow its own law and establish a community TV station. When George McCollough got his turn at the mic, he asked the newly anointed mayor if he believed Philadelphia should have a public-access station.
The mayor suggested that laying out cash for public access was not a priority, and he expressed concern about offensive content being shown. Nevertheless, Street promised to make a decision on the matter "one way or the other" within a few months.
"I believe you deserve the truth," Street said emphatically.
Two years later, proponents of a community TV station are asking a judge to provide the answer that Street never delivered. PCAC members say they are tired of listening to the city argue that it can’t afford community-access TV. The mayor has asked them what they are "willing to sacrifice" in exchange for funding public access. Youth basketball? Trash pickup? Education subsidies?
Instead, McCollough says, the administration should consider the potential for public-access TV to function as an economic stimulus for Philadelphia. After all, city officials justify laying out millions of dollars on new sports stadiums for this purpose. And remember those "transition teams" that Street appointed early in his tenure to suggest innovative ways of improving city services? Three of those committees concluded that Philadelphia would benefit from public access TV.
The Arts & Culture policy team report urged the Street administration to develop a public-access cable system "as a way to support, promote and advance community-based arts and cultural activities." The Public Safety transition team suggested that the mayor host monthly "public-safety reviews… [to be] broadcast on public-access TV channels." The Social Services committee noted that ethnic communities are the most at-risk for health problems, yet have the least access to information. Public access could carry messages that are "culturally and linguistically specific" and provide programming to counteract "irresponsible messages about sexual behavior.
"Public access would allow minority communities to generate positive images of themselves, tell their own stories and represent themselves in an honest and real manner," the February 2000 Social Services report says.
Comcast has also cried poor when PCAC attempted to enlist them in the fight for public access, members say.
"It’s ironic because, in public hearings, Comcast has said the financial burden of paying for community-access stations will cripple them," says coalition member Inja Coates. "But if you look at the company’s website, in the section geared toward investors, it brags about how rich they are."
Comcast’s "investor relations" website reports that the company earned record revenue of $9.7 billion and operating cash of $2.7 billion during 2001. That’s a 17.7 percent revenue increase from 2000 reports.
The city legally "owns" five channels on the city cable systems, thanks to the franchise agreements. However, they are all currently "on loan to the franchisees," according to the City Solicitor’s Office. But if the city leased this prime "real estate" back to cable operators, PCAC members estimate, it could earn more than $24 million a year — enough to pay for public-access TV many times over. This is a situation that Stretton attributes to elected officials’ "coziness" with Comcast.
Comcast and Time Warner/Wade claim they are willing to fulfill the requirements of their franchise agreements. If the city simply asked.
Bunnie Riedel, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media in Washington, has spent months attempting to enlist Comcast in the fight to win cable access. Comcast’s Pardini responded to Riedel in a letter dated Oct. 8, 2001, noting that community access is a "legislative matter" to be decided by the city.
"The millions of dollars generated by Comcast franchise fees, wage taxes and other business-privilege taxes … are collected in the city’s general operating fund, and the decisions on how best to allocate these resources are appropriately left to elected officials," Pardini writes. "[Comcast] stands ready to fulfill all of its contractual obligations as outlined in the Franchise Agreement."
That may be, but it doesn’t explain why Comcast would provide the Rendell administration with offensive footage spliced from public-access programming that was shown in other cities. But that’s exactly what the company did. In March 1999, Kevin Feeley, then deputy mayor for communications, hosted a meeting for City Council members where he showed excerpts from a Ku Klux Klan video and nude images. He told Council members that this is what they could expect from community access.
PCAC member Coates says the "naughty tape" issue has been distorted and that "99.9 percent" of public-access programming shown in cities throughout the country is inoffensive, she says. Nevertheless, Mayor Street has commented about the "seedy side" of public-access TV. But in reality, nearly all public-access stations enforce obscenity guidelines, based on established federal standards. At MNN, for instance, shows depicting sexual acts are banned.
When Sherry Hill contacted PCAC, she received a call back from member George McCollough. Hill told him her plight, and he put her in touch with a public-access station in Delaware County. Radnor Studio 21 has been an incredible help, Hill says. The station manager there is now teaching her and several "co-producers" how to do camera work and editing. Kids from the church are also getting trained.
Now, all CEFN needs to do is partner with a church in Radnor, so that Studio 21 can air the show — you must be a resident of the town to use the station.
"When we dealt with Comcast, it was all about money," Hill says. "When we dealt with [the gospel station], it was all about money. Now, we get the double benefit of being trained and having our show aired. … Now, if only we can make this a reality in Philadelphia."
PCAC is arguing that Philadelphians’ rights to free speech are being violated due to the lack of community-access TV.In March 1999, Kevin Feeley, then deputy mayor for communications, hosted a meeting for City Council members where he showed excerpts from a Ku Klux Klan video and nude images. He told Council members that that is what they could expect from community access.Philadelphia is now the
only major city in the country that hasn’t established a community-access TV channel.