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The threat of public access: an interview with Chris Hill and Brian Springer.

Who owns the media, and why should humanists, care? Ownership and control of the mainstream media are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a dwindling number of privately held conglomerates. Executive decision-making power is exercised at so rarefied and stratospheric a level that the media policy pursued by these conglomerates eludes any serious democratic oversight. As a result, the media is all too often in the propaganda business, the hidden-agenda business, the bread-and-circuses business. It is, in fact, the major vehicle for the transmission of the secular myths by which we live - myths which obscure reality and serve to maintain and protect powerful, anti-democratic interests in our society.

These days, a whopping majority of Americans - as reflected in virtually every poll taken in the last several years - think our country has gone seriously off-track. And yet, instead of a responsible discussion of national issues, the media has served up a rancid stew of sensation, spectacle, disasters, geek shows, and blatantly diversionary nonissues. The Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding imbroglio, for example, was an astonishing example of a story imposed on Americans from above. I wish I had a 10-dollar bill for each time I saw, over the last few months, a journalists' discussion panel on C-SPAN in which a caller phoned in to say, "Why do we have to see Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan on the front page every day?" - only to have some smug journalist respond, without a trace of comprehension: "It's what the people want." That affair reached its disgraceful conclusion when 300 reporters descended upon Lillehammer to cover the women's figure-skating competition - many fewer than were covering the S&L crisis in its heyday.

These days, it's fashionable to decry the "tabloidization" of the media, but this isn't happening by accident. Instead, it's what happens as control of the major media becomes increasingly centralized in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations that have redefined "news" as personal scandal and celebrity peccadillos. There are some obvious advantages to this strategy, not the least being that a citizenry fixated upon the fate of John Bobbitt's penis and Nancy Kerrigan's knee isn't going to have much in the way of mental resources left for the major issues of the day.

The control, manipulation, management, marketing, and delivery of information has always been big business in the United States - and it's about to become even bigger, thanks to the development of the information superhighway. Fans of the "free market" take note: the process has led to decreased competition and increased monopolization, as powerful companies gobble up their competitors and set themselves up as Masters of Cyberspace. Can we expect these megacorporations to exercise their power democratically, with the public interest in mind? In a recent New Yorker profile of TCI chair John Malone, Ken Auletta reported that, when TCI and the city of Vail, Colorado, could not agree on cable rates, TCI actually pulled its programming from the air and broadcast, in a continuous feed on every channel of its system, the names and home phone numbers of city officials, who were soon blitzed with irate calls from citizens who knew only that their programming had been interrupted. Needless to say, the city officials quickly came around to TCI's point of view. This is not mere hardball but a truly disturbing display of corporate muscle.

Fortunately, however, there are, all throughout the United States, individual media activists and groups like the Alliance for Community Media who have championed a whole other vision of what television can be: not corporate and commercial but democratic and community-oriented. They are currently lobbying to have public-access space included on the information superhighway and to promote and expand the whole project of public access itself.

Chris Hill and Brian Springer have been involved in these issues for many years. Hill is an independent video and public-access producer, as well as the video curator at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in Buffalo, New York, and the president dent of the board of Buffalo's public-access operator, BCAM. Brian Springer was once hailed by the Christian Science Monitor as "a TV activist [with] a flair for guerrilla video"; he uses satellite TV feeds to capture political, religious, and media personalities in revealing and unguarded off-camera moments. (His work was featured in James Ridgway's and Kevin Rafferty's 1991 documentary Feed.) Springer is also a member of the Cable Advisory Board for the city of Buffalo, the former public-access and cable TV programmer at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, and one of the founders of BCAM. Both Hill and Springer have much to say about public access and its enormous democratic potential.

(One final note: as we were going to press, the March 27 issue of the Buffalo News's "TV Topics" announced that, in order to make room for six new cable channels, it would be dropping the local public-access channels from its listings.)

The Humanist interviewed Chris Hill and Brian Springer on March 9, 1994.

The Humanist: You're both involved with issues of public access to the proposed 500-channel information "superhighway." Is there anything new on that front?

Hill: Well, the issue is finally being taken up in Congress. I just spoke with a guy from the Alliance for Community Media about the Markey Telecommunications Subcommittee, as a matter of fact, which is in the process of debating these issues now. Markey's key's bill is not really a national telecommunications policy in the same way that many media activists like to see one; this is basically a bill to enable the telcos to come into competition with the cable companies.

The Humanist: Telcos?

Hill: The telephone companies. The one thing we want is to get the federal guidelines for public access - what are called the "PEG provisions," which stands for "public, educational, and governmental" access channels - applied to the telcos. The PEG provisions are already in force for cable companies, and they provide that the costs for these channels are to be paid by the companies.

The Humanist. But considering that Markey's subcommittee was responsible for shamelessly exploiting the TV violence issue, how much good can you expect from it?

Hill: I don't know. It'll depend on how the bill is finally written. The guy I talked to today said that one of the big controversies is whether or not the telcos can use 25 percent of channel capacity for their own programming. So, of course, that brings up the whole issue of TCI, which is not supposed to carry its own programming; but, in fact, TCI owns a major interest in CNN, for example, and in Liberty Media, which is its programming arm. So when people say these companies only own the wires and not the programming, that definitely doesn't reflect the realities of the situation.

Springer: There is, in fact, a kind of cable cartel; three major cable companies own about 50 percent of the channels - I don't have the current statistic, but that's real close. For example, TCI not only owns Liberty Media and a major interest in CNN; it also owns part of the Family Channel, it owns Turner Broadcasting System and Black Entertainment Television, and so on. So when you look at cable and think it all looks the same - it does, for good reason.

The Humanist: Well, let's start with the big picture, then. What interests are behind the creation of the information superhighway? And who else is trying to get onto it?

Springer: Well, the interests that are developing the superhighway are the cable companies, the telephone companies

Hill: - the computer companies; basically anyone involved with information transfer or any kind of digital services.

Springer: But who's trying to build the highway is a false issue; I think the real issue is who's trying to get on the highway. There are something like 30 corporations now that provide the majority of media programming in the United States, and those are the players that are maneuvering their way onto the highway.

Hill: And there has been, over the last two years, an astonishing number of mergers. In an article he wrote in 1993, communications theorist Bob Devine noted that there had been, in the previous six months, a reported 340 deals between telcos, communications combines, cable companies, and computer companies involving an excess of $100 billion! Another person who's traced this over an even longer period of time is media analyst Ben Bagdikian. He looks not just at telecommunications companies but at the print media, too - at things like the Time-Warner merger. At one time you had maybe 250 media companies, and now you're actually down to around 30.

The Humanist: So then you have competition actually decreasing as all these companies gobble each other up in pursuit of the supreme market share. But some people would respond that, since these companies are obviously the most successful at what they do, what's wrong with letting them set national telecommunications policy? After all, this is America, and the private sector is where those decisions should be made. I mean, who the hell wants to live in Russia?

Hill: But you're talking about the marketplace, and basically the people who compete in the marketplace - the people who are allowed to have access to the marketplace - are the people who have the resources (meaning money) to get them there. Money, and the knowledge of how business is done and profits its are made in the marketplace. What we're not talking about is a structure that necessarily deals with the issues of citizen communications. And I'm talking about real communication: a public sphere where people talk with each other; where civic issues, policy issues, and local, state, and national government issues are all being discussed by citizens. In fact, the sphere where these discussions do take place is actually diminishing.

So I would say these conglomerates, while they're good at making profits, are not very good at fulfilling the needs of this public sphere. For me, that's like a major difference. And I would probably disagree that the marketplace is the best way to serve the population, especially when we're talking about human needs.

Springer: You can take, just as one example, the Ross Perot/ Al Gore debate on CNN. That was the biggest public debate of the important national issues surrounding the North American Free Trade Agreement - and yet, if you wanted to see it, you had to pay $240 a year to subscribe to CNN.

Hill: So it was hardly a public discussion of NAFTA, and CNN isn't even on the basic tier of cable. Basic cable itself costs money, and then you pay extra to get CNN.

Springer: See, cable is basically a programming medium, not a transmission medium. That affects a number of things: most importantly, the money to be made in exporting media programming, which is the second-largest net export in the United States (behind aerospace). That's why something like public access is so important: it's a programming initiative that really reflects the communities in which these channels are located, whereas these other channels do not. I mean, "Larry King Live" is seen in over 100 countries - it's part of an international corporate system.

The Humanist: Do you think cable has lived up to its promise? A lot of the services they're discussing now with the information superhighway are promises that were made when cable first came on. Cable was supposed to open up a vast range of programming alternatives, including interactive TV

Springer: The industry term for that is blue-sky promises. So when two companies were competing for a franchise - essentially, the monopoly to provide a particular city with cable service - they would make an escalating series of blue-sky promises. And some of these promises would address the question of which company would best serve public and community needs. You'd get, for example, promises of an "institutional network," where all the community-based organizations would have interactive video and be able to receive and transmit data between themselves and create a network for exchanging information. That's a common blue-sky promise, the "I-net."

Hill: These things would always be offered as a sort of dessert item in the contract, but there was never any actual intention to create this fantastic civic infrastructure where people could talk to each other.

The problem really goes back even before cable started in the 1970s. We're living with two big communications models. One is the telephone model: you can say whatever you want to say; no one monitors your speech; and transmission and reception are equally weighted - you can pick up the phone and call someone, or they call and you answer. The television industry, on the other hand, was set up like the radio industry: there's a very unequal relationship between reception and transmission. You have these big companies in control of transmission, and reception becomes a consumer modality.

And so it's inconceivable for people at this point in time, some 40 years after the introduction of television, to think about making television, whereas people don't have any problem at all with making a telephone call. What's happened is that the industry not only established control over the means of production - the television studios, the antennas, and the distribution centers - it also set industry standards which, in time, everyone else has come to absorb. As a result, we all assume that this is the only way television can be made. Give people cameras, and they will think that the only thing they can make is something that looks like corporate television; they don't have other models of video communication as reasonable guidelines. So when you work in public access, it's an extraordinary educational project to take on, because you really have to teach people that television can be something other than the corporate television they've seen until now.

The Humanist: In his article "Lost in the Cyberspace" in the July/August 1993 issue of MediaCulture Review, Dan Kennedy wrote that the real problem with the proposed information superhighway was that information was becoming increasingly decentralized. And not only Kennedy - Jon Katz in Rolling Stone and Michael Crichton in Wired have also argued that, for good or ill, a new era of informational individualism is setting in. That was certainly news to me, because I think that information is actually becoming more centralized. What do you think?

Springer: A lot depends on his context.

The Humanist: Well, Kennedy's argument is that so much information will be offered - and it will be so easily tailored by different people to suit their individual needs - that there will no longer be any common ground for a discussion of national issues, as say the networks, for all their faults, used to provide. Kennedy argues that what you have now, with all these various information technologies coming on-line, is a mass of information that people can pick through and choose from, so that eventually the'll have no core of information in common and will become more and more alienated from each other.

Springer: Sure, that is a possibility. I think that, despite people's natural inquisitiveness, most people develop patterns of viewing that serve mainly to let them hear the same rhetoric over and over again, to enforce their own beliefs and block any new information from coming in. So you could end up with a situation where there is black programming on one channel for a black audience and the white audience is watching the White Channel and the Jewish audience is watching the Jewish Channel and, yeah - I could see how that could lead to some kind of fragmentation. But I don't think that's the main problem ...

Hill: The bigger problem is what's going to happen if there's no public space set aside - a kind of electronic public park where people can say whatever they want and which they can access for free. If that space doesn't exist, what we're going to have are information malls, which will be the same model as a shopping mall: it will look like a lot of free space, but everybody's going to have to pay to be a vendor there, and there will probably even be a turnstile into which you drop a few cents just to get in. What people need to be reminded of is that you do not have free speech in a mall; if you take your video camera in, security guards can arrest you, and they will be completely within their rights because the mall is private space. So maybe what Kennedy's talking about is an information mall that's got so many little stores he can't possibly visit them all in one trip.

But the issue for me isn't the broadness of the market; it's who's going to produce our culture? Are we going to produce culture for ourselves, or are we only going to consume what other people put out there? That's my main concern.

The Humanist: Which brings us to public access. Both of you have been working in the field for a while now. What would you say is the mission of public access?

Hill: Well, public access started in the early 1970s. It was a period of time when there was a lot of discussion around the question of what democracy means, and there were still many sectors of society that were actually interested in critiquing institutions of power and making them more humane, more democratic. So as the fledgling cable industry introduced itself to American cities, a provision was written into federal legislation that provided for an exchange as part of the franchise agreement between a city and a cable company. Basically, the exchange was this: in return for the monopoly the city was giving to the cable company, the city would ask for monies to pay for public, educational, and government access channels. Federal law stipulates that the city has to ask for this; but if it does, then the cable companies have to negotiate in good faith for the provision of capital monies for equipment and facilities and operational monies for staff and programming initiatives. They also have to provide channel space for citizens who want access to cable, as well as training and equipment to utilize the channel space. So public access is basically a situation in which citizens can get trained for free in TV production and media literacy. And the federal legislation requires the companies to set aside channel space for the city's PEG needs: one, two, three, six, or however many access channels.

Springer: Federal law also says that every cable system has to provide a playback facility and free channel time to anyone who brings in tape and wants to play it, as long as the tape doesn't sell anything and isn't obscene, slanderous, or libelous. But it is up to the municipality to stipulate exactly how many channels would be set aside and whether there will be monies for equipment, staff, programming initiatives, and so on.

Hill; And the rules for how people access that equipment vary from city to city.

The Humanist: So then basically anyone can show up at a public-access facility with a videotape of, say, their wedding or their vacation in Utah and get it on the air?

Hill: As long as it's not commercial, slanderous, libelous, or obscene, it can get on cable. People can show whatever they like; there are no content restrictions.

Springer: Well, there is a soft form of censorship: the cable companies usually don't provide notice that the consumer can do this. There are a few state cable systems which have to provide some form of notice: in New York, the state cable commission requires that a notice be put on the public-access channel every hour that tells people they can program and put programming on this channel. But I don't believe there is a federal requirement for notifying cable subscribers that such a channel exists.

The Humanist: So basically we're talking about a project that certainly sounds worthwhile and yet has been allowed to languish.

Hill: Well, it depends. Some cities took it really seriously: Austin, Texas, has a really fantastic public-access scene. So does Tucson, Arizona. They do all kinds of community programming; they cover local events, government meetings

Springer: - the alternative music scene, independent news programming, and so on. They've actually produced two or three channels that are going 24 hours a day.

The Humanist: What was the secret of their success?

Hill: Well, they organized early. Again, historically, it's been up to the cities to activate the PEG provisions. So there were public-access activists who went out and worked as community organizers and helped bring together like-minded individuals in the community. In fact, that happened in Buffalo, New York, in the mid-1980s; we spent six months organizing this big community meeting, and we had something like 350 people attending - including people from all the not-for-profit organizations in the city - and everybody learned what public access was about. And there was such an overwhelming show of support that it kicked the city council people into gear and brought to the public stage a discussion about public access. In most cities, if there's good public access, it's a result of grass-roots organizing by people who see this as an important public resource.

But take the situation in Buffalo now. TCI and the city council are renegotiating TCI's franchise, and there's been surprisingly little discussion in the press about what's going on - especially given the amount of money at stake. The city of Buffalo gets something like $1.5 million a year out of its contract with TCI; that's the 5 percent of gross revenues which cities are federally mandated to receive. So if the city's 5 percent is $1.5 million, you know TCI is walking away with something like $32 million. TCI is certainly making a lot of money in Buffalo, and one would think that, given all the media interest in the information superhighway, there would be a lot more coverage of this contract in the local press. In, stead, there's been very little public discussion.

Springer: One thing I just want to add really quickly is that cable is still pretty new. Most of the contracts that cities awarded were for 10 years, and most of the contracts were awarded in 1984, 1985, 1986; so now these 10-year contracts are running out all over the country at virtually the same time. No one city has really experienced the entire refranchisement process - either awarding the contract to a new company or renegotiating a contract with the current company. So there are a lot of unknowns, and municipalities have little precedence to refer to. There are also many areas of ambiguity within the phrasing of these agreements: what powers a municipality has in asking for certain things, like operating monies and the continuation of access, and so on. That's the kind of atmosphere that exists now.

Hill: Sure, and some of that information - to be fair to the people involved - clearly shouldn't be made public while these negotiations are going on. On the other hand, the whole problem with this situation is that federal law requires at this point that citizens show a need for public access. And if there's not public discussion of what it is and what it can be and what's ultimately at stake, then, of course, citizens aren't going to know to ask for it.

The Humanist: How does federal law require that they show a need?

Hill: It's not real specific; this is one of those vague areas that Brian referred to. Buffalo actually did do a needs assessment; it hired an independent marketing firm to go out and ask questions about people's cable service and whatnot. The firm came back and reported that something like 38 percent of the people it had interviewed did say they watched public access; and something like 15 percent said they were very likely to take classes on producing public-access TV, while another 25 percent were sort of likely to take classes. That means, if you have 86,000 cable subscribers in Buffalo - that's just 86,000 homes that are cabled; usually there's more than one viewer in each home, so let's say two viewers in front of each TV set - 38 percent of almost 180,000 people watch BCAM at some time or another. That's a lot of people watching public access.

The Humanist: But if you have a law that vaguely requires people to show a need before public-access outlays are made, that also seems like an easy way to fudge the issue, even to help discourage people from showing a need

Hill: Well, also, the federal cable regulations over the last 12 years - which is to say, under Reagan and Bush - have moved decidedly in the favor of the cable companies, so this is relevant to people in other municipalities anticipating or undertaking, cable reenfranchisement. A lot of cable contracts are coming up for renegotiation now; this means that the cable provisions these cities will have for the next 10 or 15 years will be determined in the current wave of franchisement. That's a big deal in itself; but the other thing that's been happening concerns this issue of access - access to the information superhighway and the related issue of media literacy.

For example, 25 percent of the homes in the United States have PCs, but most of those belong to people who are relatively well off. Is there going to be some institution to help poor people get access to personal computers, to help get them onto the information superhighway? And how much will people be required to pay for these networking services? Will there be some kind of municipal internet that poor people or people without a lot of resources can get onto? And how will people learn how to be computer literate, especially if 50 percent of American adults are functionally illiterate in terms of print media? What does that mean for this new technology, which certainly requires code skills as well as print-literacy skills? All of these questions are ones that citizens should be asking their city governments to negotiate with the public interest in mind.

The Humanist: Is there a national organization for public-access activists?

Hill: Yes, it's called the Alliance for Community Media, and it's about 20 years old. They're based in Washington, D.C, and they publish Community Television Review. One of ACM's founders, George Stony, actually got inspired by working with Challenge for Change in Canada, which was funded in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the Canadian Film Board. Challenge for Change's position was that the media should be used to empower citizens; it felt very strongly that, if there were community issues which needed the attention of government officials, members of the community ought to be able to make television programs about those issues and then take the tapes to the city council or the state assembly - and in this way, send a powerful message that would be taken fairly seriously. So it was a very activist, issue-oriented project. Challenge for Change did a lot of organizing in Quebec and the Maritimes, and it was kind of a prototype project. Then George Stony went on to become one of the founders of the public-access scene in the United States in the early 1970s.

The Humanist: And from your own experiences working with BCAM, what kind of reaction have you seen? Have people been enthusiastic about public access? Have they been disappointed? And do you think public access has gotten a bad rap or has been unfairly undervalued?

Hill: We have a lot of people interested in getting trained to use video equipment - who want to learn how to shoot and edit video, or who are intrigued by the idea of having their own TV show. There's clearly been an interest in that: we have no problem filling up all the classes we've offered. I think BCAM has trained, in a year and a half, something like 450 people. But what's needed beyond just teaching people how to shoot and edit is an introduction to ideas about community communications and also to some other kind of media literature beyond television.

One of the problems with public access is that, in order to keep it open to the maximum number of people - and in Buffalo, it's free on a first-come/first-serve basis - BCAM itself will not produce programming. The public is welcome to come in and produce programming, but we ourselves - BCAM management - can only do outreach. We can't say, "We need a story about education in the inner city," and then go out and do it ourselves. We can encourage other people to do it, but we can't do it ourselves. So in some ways, there's a disjuncture between what kinds of projects get done and what kinds of projects we might like to see. We can have our own agendas, but they may not necessarily represent the city.

Then there's the problem of limited resources. We're operating on $100,000 a year; if we had more money, maybe we could do both things. So part of the problem is coming up with an operating agenda that serves the needs of the citizens most, and part of the problem is doing that within the constraints of our budget. I suppose BCAM might become a production company for the city, but then nobody would learn how to shoot and edit. It would be controlled by just a handful of people who might make prettier-looking programming and who might even make programming that most people would agree was important, but then the democracy of access would suffer. The interesting thing about access is that it provides an opportunity for narrow-casting. It is an opportunity for someone who belongs to a block club to make a program about their neighborhood and put it on TV. And because it doesn't have anything to do with profit-making or marketing, if only 20 people from the block watch that program, it has been a success.

The Humanist: Given the all-pervasive influence of commerce on television, I think a statement like that would probably strike most television executives as nearly insane.

Hill: But, on the other hand, public access is very cheap. A 30-second commercial costs probably $350,000 on average, and the whole public-access budget for a city of 350,000 people like Buffalo is $100,000. There's no way we can make something that looks like corporate television, and there's no way we should make something that looks like corporate television; we should be making community television. So I would say the criticisms of public access come from a lack of understanding of what community television is all about. Television seems so familiar by now, and it is such an authority in people's lives, that it's hard to imagine doing it some other way. That's one thing.

Secondly, we have to ask what a reasonable price would be for this service. How much should it cost a citizen? How much do people want to spend on community television? And what are the benefits? To me, the benefits are obvious, but they may not be so to a city official who doesn't want the voters to think they're paying for some new service while teachers' aides are being laid off and libraries are being shut down - even though the monies actually should be coming from the profits of the cable company. That's an issue that often gets obscured and confused.

Another problem is that, because it's free speech, you do get stuff on public access which might be offensive or dumb. You do get "vanity video," you do get high-school kids producing adolescent or foolish programs, so that some people say public-access programming is a waste of time and money. But if you decide to cut that out - if you start trying to censor and shape what's on - you're also going to get rid of the block clubs, or the person who has got something very important to say. Perhaps there's a show that some people think is a little wacky. Maybe it's not; maybe it's actually a searing critique of some institution that really needs it. So there's this problem with what First Amendment rights actually mean in this country - that's another issue.

Springer: Also, people aren't used to producing culture. Culture is consumed instead of practiced - and television has always been the great receiver mode.

The Humanist: So then your experiences in public access have mainly been frustrating?

Hill: Well, what's frustrating for me has been dealing with this climate where everybody's told that they have to tighten their belts - it's not just public access, it's everywhere. And what happens is that there is very little public discussion of what's at stake, of the complexity of how any kind of city or government or culture works.

What happens with public access at its best is that you actually have democracy in communications - citizens have the chance to put their own ideas on TV. I mean, cable reaches into 86,000 homes in Buffalo alone, so you have the potential of carrying your discussion into that many homes. And this means that, as an ordinary citizen, I can do my own show - in which I decide who the guests are and what particular issues we'll be discussing - and I can get these people into a studio together and lead a discussion that then has the potential to reach 86,000 homes.

Of course, whether or not I can actually advertise it to those homes is another problem. But, for example, Noam Chomsky recently gave a talk at Buffalo State College. It wasn't covered by any of the local stations, but BCAM was there, and now there's a two-hour version of his talk that's already being shown on public access. Or like Barbara Trent's documentary The Panama Deception, which PBS refused to show even though it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1992; public access in Buffalo was showing a working cut of that film three years ago.

Springer: When you have those kinds of bigger-scale projects with an international perspective, it's easier to which issues are being repressed by the corporate media. But a lot of censorship is harder to measure - it's softer, and process-based, and basically it's where you can only have a meaningful community discussion on those issues which are treated in the local press. To see that as part of a process of censorship might be difficult, but it does go on.

Hill: For example, the other day we did a program that a friend of mine was interested in putting together, a program on housing - basically, on opportunities for low-income people to buy and own a house in Buffalo. So we did a talk show; it was a really simple format, and the program was very informative. And when it was over, the people we interviewed were interested in possibly getting four or five of these not-for-profit housing organizations together to do a magazine show, for which each of them would be responsible for maybe 10 minutes a month. They all recognized that, if this program reached an audience of even just 20,000 people, k was an important way of getting that information out. So that's a very hopeful example for me. I mean, we hear plenty of stuff in the local press about crime going through the roof on the east side of Buffalo; what we don't hear that much about are specific programs which may not be particularly sexy but which have everything to do with stabilizing these neighborhoods and empowering the folks who live there. So that's a really good example for me of what public access should be about.

The Humanist: Well, I can certainly imagine a situation in which more and more people get interested in public access as they find out about its freedom and potential. But if that were to happen - if more and more people found out about public access and wanted to take part in it - is there any kind of provision to increase its budget as it attracts more persons?

Hill: No, actually, there's not; it's not gated in any way. See, that's one of the problems for the cable company: it has to pay money for this, so the less popular public access is, the less money the company has to pay for it - and so, the smaller the bite out of its profits.

The Humanist: But why, from your knowledge, was public access even set up in terms of something that cable systems have to provide? Wouldn't it have been easier and more equitable to have the federal government create a system using the cable companies' infrastructure to deliver a national public-access channel or channels?

Hill: Well, that's what public television was supposed to be! I mean, sure - if you go back to the late 1700s, when the post office was set up, that was considered a service necessary for all citizens. And so the government paid for the roads and the horses to carry the post; that was a responsibility which the government took on. And when the interstate highway system was developed after World War II - even though it didn't meet mass transportation needs - it was considered a national-security issue, and so it was paid for in part by the federal government (also state governments). But I think part of the problem now is that the federal government doesn't have the money to pay for this new information system. If it's going to happen now - and in order for the United States to stay competitive, it has to - this must be paid for by private industry. And so the information superhighway has become a new growth industry, like the highway was: subsidized by government but basically allowing private industry to open up new markets. So then my answer to you is, yes, the federal government should have taken this on, and no it shouldn't have been turned over to private industry to develop. That's what I would say.

The Humanist: I found your mention of public television somewhat ironic, since that thing seems to be owned virtually lock, stock, and barrel these days by various right-wing insurance companies and oil companies and foundations and so on.

Hill: Exactly, exactly, that's the problem. In this country, there's no belief in setting a public agenda other than the marketplace. Other countries have other television systems - like the BBC, for example, which has become much more privatized but which was basically set up to serve the needs of citizens instead of the needs of the marketplace.

What I'm concerned about, ultimately, is our ability as citizens to create our own culture, to really participate in it. And unless it s free, unless there s some public sphere that really is public - which people can access easily and in which they're free to say whatever they want to say, even if it's stupid and boring - then it isn't really public access. But if it's possible actually to entertain, in this public space, the range of ideas that exists in our society, then it's fine if some of it is foolish and boring, or not particularly well-edited, or whatever. Even if 20 percent or 30 percent of it is stupid and boring, so what?

Because in the end, I think that a lot of people don't understand how really limited is the range of information they're currently getting from television. They might think they're getting all the different angles on any particular topic, but that's just a misconception they have from watching so much television.
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Article Details
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Author:Szykowny, Rick
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 1, 1994
Words:6624
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