Community Television and the Vision of Media Literacy, Social Action, and Empowerment

By Higgins, John W. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Community Television and the Vision of Media Literacy, Social Action, and Empowerment


Higgins, John W., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Contemporary discussions of the liberating and democratizing potential of information technologies follow a tradition of utopian vision in the introduction of technologies. Barnouw traces this trend in the history of electronic media:

   It should be remembered that every step in modern media history--telephone,
   phonograph, motion picture, radio, television, satellite--stirred similar
   euphoric predictions. All were expected to usher in an age of
   enlightenment. All were seen as fulfilling the promise of democracy.
   Possible benefits were always easier to envisage than misuses and
   corruptions, and still are. (1978, p. 176)

This article explores the utopian vision of empowerment that accompanied the introduction of portable video and broadband cable television in the late 1960s, as expressed by the "community television" or "community video" movement--primarily in the United States. In particular, I explore the notion that learning to create television programs empowers participants and critique the assumptions underlying this tenet of community television ideology. The community video vision of empowerment is compared with the actual experiences of non-professional, volunteer, television producers, using data collected at a community television facility in the United States.

The Vision of Community Television

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, two emerging technologies were viewed as having the potential to address a variety of societal inequities in North American and European societies. Portable video equipment and large channel capacity cable television were embraced by proponents who extolled the empowering aspects of television when freed from corporate and institutional control and put in the hands of the general population. The use of video by non-professionals for the purposes of personal and group empowerment, community communication and development, and social change came to be known as "community television" or "community video." Community television followed long-standing experiments in community-based radio in the U.S. and around the world (Downing, 1984; Girard, 1992; Lewis, 1993). Documentation of the emergence of the community television movement is provided by Engleman (1990), Fuller (1994), Gillespie (1975), and Willener, Milliard, and Ganty (1972).

In the United States, community television was institutionalized in the 1970s in the form of "public access" cable television facilities. Public access is generally recognized to have its conceptual roots in the National Film Board of Canada's "Challenge for Change" program in the late 1960s. The program began as part of a governmental interagency "war on poverty"; film and portable video were considered communication tools by which communities could organize and mobilize themselves and were utilized as catalysts for social change (Engleman, 1990; Johnson & Gerlach, 1977; Sloan Commission, 1971).

Public access was viewed as a means to address some of the social problems of the period, many of which grew from a fundamental distrust of centralized social institutions and a widespread belief that people had lost the power to influence the direction of the society. Proponents of public access championed a nebulous vision of empowerment, which included personal enrichment, social awareness, and social activism. This empowerment was to take place, in part, through training in video production. Learning to create television programs would "demystify" the media as individuals became aware of media structure and influence. Participating in the production of television programs would lead to a "media literacy" as individuals learned how to "read" and "write" media codes. These production and interpretation skills would not only allow persons to become more discriminating viewers, but allow them also to actively speak out in the media--contributing to a so-called electronic "marketplace of ideas. …

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