access television is one of the most exciting and controversial
U.S. media developments within the past two decades. Beginning in
the 1970s, cable systems began to offer access channels to the public,
so that groups and individuals could make programs for other individuals
in their own communities. Access systems began to proliferate and
access programming is now being cablecast regularly in such places
as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Madison, Urbana,
Austin, and perhaps as many as 1,200 other towns or regions.
cable television began to be widely introduced in the early 1970s,
the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated in 1972 that
"beginning in 1972, new cable systems [and after 1977, all cable
systems] in the 100 largest television markets be required to provide
channels for government, for educational purposes, and most importantly,
for public access." This mandate suggested that cable systems should
make available three public access channels to be used for state
and local government, education, and community public access use.
"Public access" was construed to mean that the cable company should
make available equipment and air time so that literally anybody
could make noncommercial use of the access channel, and say and
do anything they wished on a first-come, first-served basis, subject
only to obscenity and libel laws. The result was an entirely different
sort of programming, reflecting the interests of groups and individuals
usually excluded from mainstream television.
rationale for public access television was that, as mandated by
the Federal Communications Act of 1934, the airwaves belong to the
people, that in a democratic society it is useful to multiply public
participation in political discussion, and that mainstream television
severely limited the range of views and opinion. Public access television,
then, would open television to the public, it would make possible
community participation, and thus would be in the public interest
of strengthening democracy.
Creating an access system required, in many cases, setting up a
local organization to manage the access channels, though in other
systems the cable company itself managed the access center. In the
beginning, however, few, if any, cable systems made as many as three
channels available, but some systems began offering one or two access
channels in the early to mid-1970s. The availability of access channels
depended, for the most part, on the political clout of local governments
and committed, and often unpaid, local groups to convince the cable
companies, almost all privately owned, to make available an access
channel. A 1979 Supreme Court decision, however, struck down the
1972 FCC ruling on the grounds that the FCC had no authority to
mandate access, an authority which supposedly belongs to the U.S.
Congress alone. Nonetheless, cable was expanding so rapidly and
becoming such a high-growth competitive industry that by the 1980s
city governments considering cable systems were besieged by companies
making lucrative offers (20 to 80 channel cable systems) and were
able to demand access channels and financial support for public
access systems as part of their contract negotiations. Consequently,
public access grew significantly during the 1980s and 1990s.
Not surprisingly, public access television has been controversial
from the beginning. Early disputes revolved around explicit sexuality
and obscenity, particular in New York city public access schedules
with programs like "Ugly George" and "Midnight Blue" drawing attention.
Focus then turned to controversial political content when extremist
groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nation began distributing
programs nationally. Many groups like the American Atheists, labor
groups, and a diverse number of political groups began producing
programs for syndication, and debates emerged over whether access
systems should show programming that was not actually produced in
the community where it was originally cablecast.
the controversy, public access television is currently thriving.
A very few systems charge money for use of facilities, or charge
a fee for use of air time, but due to competitive bidding among
cable systems in the 1980s and 1990s for the most lucrative franchises,
many cable systems offer free use of equipment, personnel, and air
time, and occasionally even provide free videotapes. In these situations,
literally anyone can make use of public access facilities without
technical expertise, television experience, or financial resources.
public access systems also offer a range of conceptual and technical
training programs designed to instruct groups or individuals who
wish to make their own programs from conception through final editing.
As video equipment costs have rapidly declined it has even become
possible for some groups to purchase their own equipment.
In the 1990s, following the trends of talk radio, many talk television
access shows emerged. Individuals fielded calls from members of
the community, and discussed current political problems, or, in
some cases, personal problems. In many ways, this "conversational"
mode exemplified the community focus and personal orientation of
access television, again moving away from mainstream TV designed
to reach the largest possible audiences.
various actions moving toward greater media deregulation in the
1990s threaten the continued survival of access, as do the Internet
and other new communications technologies. In a highly competitive
environment, cable systems may very well close down access systems
if there is insufficient government pressure to keep them open,
though competitive market pressures might promote the survival of
popular access channels. And while the Internet, and other emerging
delivery systems could render obsolete the relatively low-tech access
systems, these same forms of communication may even multiply access
television, enabling literally any group or individual to make their
television programs and distribute them over the Internet. Thus,
the future of access is uncertain and is bound up with the unforeseeable
consequences of what may be one of the most dramatic communications
revolutions in history.
Sally M. Reclaiming the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Access
Television Programming by the U.S. Labor Movement. (Ph.D. dissertation,
University of North Carolina, 1995).
H. Allan. Community Access Video. Menlo Park, California:
Linda K. Community Television in the United States. Westport,
Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Douglas. Television and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder,
Colorado: Westview Press, 1990..
Mary Alice Mayer. CATV: A History of Community Antenna Television.
Evanston, Illinois.: Northwestern University Press, 1972.
Charlotte. Prime-Time Activism. Boston: South End Press,
States: Cable Television