The Future of Public Access Television
In the 1950s and 1960s, as television assumed a dominant role in American culture, commercial television was the only option. As Tony Schwartz states in The Responsive Chord, "When commercial television was the only form of programming available, the public accepted it as synonymous with television."1 With the advent of public television (PBS and CPB) in the 1960s, the public began to be aware of alternatives to mainstream, commercial television. Viewers gradually became accustomed to the public television alternative, with its greater focus on quality and education, and relative absence of advertising. It entered the public consciousness that there was more than one television environment. As public television moved toward the mainstream in the 1970s, public access television became the new option. Public access television differed from public television less in content or form than in having been created by ordinary citizens. In recent years, of course, other television environments have become available (for example, pay-per-view and direct television satellite feeds). Public control of the means of production, however, remains the essential fact that distinguishes public access television from other forms of television. Public control is the primary attribute that must be emphasized if this media alternative is to survive and flourish. The overarching recommendation for any public access television operation, therefore, is to increase public participation in the process of making programs.
In seeking broad public participation, public access television faces certain unique obstacles. Unlike the situation with most civic or social service organizations, the basic concept of public access television itself is not always embraced by the general public. Not every citizen is actively involved with the Red Cross or Hospice, to name two well-known nonprofit organizations, but most have a general feeling of good will and appreciation toward these institutions. Public access television often lacks this kind of broad-based support.