Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Making Public Access Television: Community Participation, Media Literacy and the Public Sphere

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Making Public Access Television: Community Participation, Media Literacy and the Public Sphere

Article excerpt

   Rather than languishing on the couch, passively accepting our daily dose of
   the tube, we can talk back to it. We can learn how television is
   constructed and packaged. We can look behind the curtain and take note of
   that man who is fiddling with the levers and dials. We can decide what and
   whom to believe. We can make decisions on what to watch and what not to
   watch. We can include our children in critical discussions about programs
   and advertisements. We can construct television programs and communicate
   with our communities through Public Access. (Cape Cod Community Television
   Newsletter, 1998).

When local cable television franchises across the United States increased the number of public access channels in the 1980s, media critics and activists first applauded, then pondered the normative implications of a local, noncommercial electronic forum delivered into the homes of millions. Federal regulation of cable franchises, including the provision of technology for access channels and a hands-off editorial policy, appeared opportune for community engagement in innovative and responsive programming. In a medium otherwise dominated by advertisements, canned programming and audience-tested newscasting, public access offers possibilities to probe and address topics and concerns underrepresented in mainstream media. Most media activists envision public access channels as electronic public spaces where issues and concerns central to local communities are brought to the fore and democratically resolved through discussion and dissemination. They see public access as not only critiquing commercial television but challenging it. Observations and analyses of public access television, therefore, must be subjected to a double theoretical framework of media criticism and normative democratic expectations.

Central to the mythos of the electronic revolution, James Carey notes, is to accord to "electrical technology" the potential to "overcome historical forces and political obstacles that prevented previous utopias" (1989:115). These prospects are heightened with the advent of communication advances, such as the Internet and public access television, that reconfigure the role of individuals from passive viewers to active producers. Community public access television holds promise not only as critique of the hegemonic tendencies of contemporary media but also as opportunity to resurrect a pluralistic form of the public sphere (Aufderheide, 1992). In many ways, public access channels have delivered programs in line with the high expectations of media theorists, critics, and activists. Alternative Views provided viewers in Austin, Texas a regular corrective to mainstream news, presenting issues poorly covered or ignored by local and national news programs. The coverage in the much acclaimed Gulf Crisis TV Project, produced by Paper Tiger public access in New York City, compensated for the commercial media's lavish but wholly imperceptive reports from the Persian Gulf War.

For increasing numbers of media commentators and observers, however, many public access programs fall outside the parameters of content relevant to the public sphere. So-called fringe programs present a spectrum of lifestyles, values, issues, ideas and viewpoints to audiences with specific tastes and interests. Relentless religious proselytizing and irrelevant, self-indulgent silliness (as portrayed in the parody film, Wayne's World) are seen as undermining public access television's potential as a tool for animating progressive social and political change. "Issues of public importance," are said to disintegrate under the weight of programming that "fetishizes the amateur and the homemade" (Aufderheide 1992, p. 58, 61). Similar charges of a meaningless "free for all" have been levied against uses of the Internet in which "relevant" issues cannot be heard above the din of "inconsequential" noise. As such, public access ventures are viewed as successful when they provide programs that are (1) demonstrably different (i. …

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