Publicly Funded Leftism on Community Television

The last time I watched my local Cambridge Community Television (CCTV), sometime during the Clinton Administration, the bulk of the programming seemed to consist of a couple of geeks fooling around with a Betacam and a live camera feed on the corner of Prospect Street and Mass Ave, which in the days before webcams passed for cutting-edge technology. I was therefore surprised by the recent announcement that CCTV plans to build a $2.4 million 8,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art television studio.

Community television began, like many bad ideas, in the 1960s, when self-styled "media activist" George Stoney and others began lobbying the FCC to mandate "public access" broadcasting. Stoney is described as "an early advocate of video as a tool for social change," who makes films "focusing on issues of social justice." In short, he's a leftist.

Stoney argued that since private companies were profiting from a "public right of way" -- the bandwidth and telephone poles that allowed them to provide cable service -- it was only right that they pay an "access fee." Media activists demanded that this revenue be earmarked to support local public, educational and government television, known as PEG channels.  FCC rulings in 1972 and 1974 led to the mandate that every community with 3,500 or more cable subscribers be offered four public access channels funded by access fees. The Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that the FCC had overstepped its authority, but by then it was too late; municipal governments had passed regulations requiring funding of PEG channels. As a result, today more than 3,000 cities nationwide have community television stations.

Cable companies have little reason to complain, since they are allowed to pass the access fee on to their customers. It costs Comcast nothing. Cable subscribers in effect pay city governments to use their own public right of way.

Municipal governments naturally welcomed this new source of revenue. Contracts vary, but in general, cities get around 5% of cable revenue, which in the case of Cambridge adds up to $1.34 million annually from Comcast.  The monthly access fee on my cable bill is $5.52 or $66/year. Times 20,229 households = $1.34 million. CCTV gets 60%, or $778,000 -- their annual operating budget -- and the Cambridge Municipal Television Channel (MTC) gets the remaining $578,000. CCTV provides the P and E parts of the PEG acronym (public and educational), while Municipal Television is the G for government, broadcasting events like City Council meetings.

CCTV claims that it trains "under-served communities" for careers in media, but the Cambridge high school has a 5,500 square foot, $1.38 million media lab built in 2005 that broadcasts on two additional channels, supervised by a Media Technology Teacher who is paid $80,000/year out of the separate school budget. Technical education is a good idea, but media jobs are highly competitive and not plentiful; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, America employs around 166,000 media technicians, compared to 763,700 auto mechanics.

In sum, Cambridge (pop. 105,162) operates FIVE television channels, with six full-time employees at CCTV, and five full-time employees at MTC, supervised by a $78,000/year Director of Cable Television.

Politicians love this arrangement because it allows them to spend money without the responsibility of raising revenue through taxes. The tax appears as a pass-through item in the budget, so it's money for nothing. Community television is however obviously not free.

On the CCTV website, we read that CCTV is a "public forum...the voice and vision of all residents, businesses and organizations in the city...provid[ing] tools and training to foster free speech and creative that all may become active participants in electronic media." The Alliance for Community Media calls community television stations "electronic outposts of democracy."

The reality is somewhat less impressive. The "creative expression" programming would merit about 1.5 seconds on a channel surfing odyssey. On the "Depraved Dave" show, Dave gorges himself on a feast and turns into a pig, borrowed from Hiyao Miyazaki's Spirited Away (and Circe). It's not a pretty sight. On "Live TV," we are treated to a series of local rap artists. One "song" is about a big cocaine delivery to Rindge Towers, a Cambridge housing project, followed by the singer boiling down the coke to make crack. A disclaimer at the end states that the activities were performed purely for artistic purposes. Another rapper pretends to defecate on the record of a cross-Cambridge rival. On another night Depraved Dave shows us trailers for 1950s horror movies, which are pretty cool, and a great service if you're too lazy to click your mouse over to YouTube.

The political programming is predictably from the Noam Chomsky/Seymour Hersh side of the spectrum. CCTV broadcasts the Thom Hartmann Show (think leftist Michael Savage), al-Jazeera, and shows from a network called Democracy Now! which appears on 900 stations nationwide. (Something about that "Now!" seems antithetical to the measured progress of democracy.) Much of CCTV's news coverage is national or international and not entirely without merit, but it obviously is not local community television. George Stoney explains in an interview:

[W]e were thinking of just local. We didn't know how important it could be nationally...but as we worked on it, we saw that we have two kinds of communities. We have the community where we live, and we have a community of interest which links me in Manhattan with the people in Seattle, Washington, and all over the country.

By verbal slight of hand, "local" becomes a synonym for "national." It's a textbook case of the Gramsci/Alinsky strategy of "the long march through the institutions": rather than violent revolution, the gradual co-option of societal institutions.  (And note that Stoney didn't choose to link to Lubbock, Texas; conservatives aren't part of his "community of interest.")

CCTV's programming -- or its existence -- is not really the problem. Cambridge no doubt has an audience for leftist propaganda, and some people out there like gangsta rap. I would however make the following modest suggestions:

1. Eliminate mandatory cable access fees. Community television has a sweet deal where their budget, a percentage of cable revenue, is unrelated to quality or viewership. Thom Hartmann and Democracy Now! should have to compete in the marketplace with commercial television and public broadcasting. Municipal television could be offered as an optional cable package that political junkies could elect to pay for...well, maybe not.

2. Shut down all community television stations across the country and put them on the Internet. We live in an age where a cell phone video posted on YouTube can go viral and reach millions of people. There is absolutely no reason to invest in capital-intensive technology (e.g., a $2.3 million studio) to reach a local audience. Local "broadcasting" is an oxymoron; the internet is global.

3. Eliminate all international political news. Local community television should be local.

4. Enlist high school students, like those in our Media Technology Program, to run municipal cable. Any fifteen year old interested in video can upload a video of a city council meeting.

And if you think this will happen any time soon, I've got a special offer of Arizona oceanfront property that's available until midnight tonight.