Twenty-year experiment in encouraging local community voices comes to an end
County school superintendent Heath Morrison, Assemblymember Don Gustavson and a couple of hundred other dignitaries circulated around the room, chatting and noshing on hors d’œuvres. It was a reception to introduce people to the new and less expensive headquarters of Sierra Nevada Community Access Television (SNCAT). It seemed like an upbeat occasion.
That was last August. Last week, by contrast, the democratization of media suffered a setback in the Truckee Meadows when local governments forced the shutdown of SNCAT, a forum that local organizations and individuals had used to get their messages out.
Community access broadcasting was a place where people could start their own television programs without having to make the capital outlaws required by commercial television, thus generating local dialogue. Parent-Teacher Associations, activist groups, gadflys and teenagers could have programs of their own. If they did not have the necessary equipment, their programs could be taped and edited at SNCAT. And they enjoyed an unusual degree of latitude in what they could put on the air, free from censorship or political sensibilities.
At the end, SNCAT was carrying religious, anti-drug, and interview programs.
Public access television is a program that was created with mostly conservative sponsorship, including the Federal Communications Commission during the Nixon administration. After various twists and turns, U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1984 sponsored legislation to ensure the future of public access television, funded by franchise fees from cable television firms as part of their franchise agreements. However, the language in the Goldwater measure was not well drafted, and when it was enacted, it contained text that could allow local governments to drop community access programs and divert the funding into their general funds. A number of local governments have done so. During the current recession, this trend has probably accelerated, though in some markets such as Vallejo, Calif., public access television has actually been beefed up.
In Northern Nevada—Clark County, with the exception of Boulder City, has never had an access program—local governments eventually got their own television channels. Local governments have generally treated public access television as “their” program, designed mainly to carry the proceedings of government boards like city councils and county commissions, when in fact its principal purpose is to provide a voice for ordinary people in the community. In Reno last week, the shutdown of SNCAT was described as a matter of local government being able to broadcast its own meetings more cheaply on its own than through SNCAT, without an explanation that by withdrawing from the program, local government doomed all the community-based programming as well, and SNCAT along with it.
There have been no proposals within local governments of what to do to provide a new forum for community programming, and they do not provide time on their own stations for that programming.
At some point, probably about 2000, the process of local governments setting the community access portion of franchise fees out separately was dropped, and the fees went into local general funds. Then the local government funded SNCAT out of those general funds.
Then in 2007, Assembly Bill 526 was enacted by the Nevada Legislature. That measure gave cable companies the ability to provide service in a community without negotiating a franchise agreement with the local government. With the state taking over franchises, local governments no longer got franchise fees, so community access television became a local resource without a special funding source.
Randolph Townsend, then a prime mover on A.B. 526 in the Nevada Senate, said he was under the impression that the bill was written so the franchise fees would go to the state but then would “U-turn” back to SNCAT.
“[We wanted to] try to figure out how to make franchise laws consistent throughout the state so that you didn’t have these companies, you know, dealing with 17 different counties and multiple lower jurisdictions,” Townsend said. “That was the goal. Now, as I remember, I thought we ended up in discussions were we left the taxes and fees at the local level. Was that not the case?”
According to a memo to SNCAT board chair Shayne del Cohen from Reno city communications director Kevin Knudson, that never happened. “There is no contract between the City and Charter Communications, as the State took over all cable franchises in 2007. … We lost all [community access television]-related fees back in 2007 when the [last] contract was terminated,” Knudson wrote.
“I thought the state was going to U-turn it to the local jurisdiction,” Townsend said. “They were going to pay the same fees, give it back to the local—that doesn’t mean that’s the way it was, that’s just the way I remember it.”Gadflys
An old chronic complaint of some public officials—community gadflys—may have been another factor.
The Washoe County Commission staff informed county commissioners there was a “quality control” problem and that county publicist Kathy Carter, in negotiations with SNCAT, proposed “performance measures” be installed and a technician assigned “to ensure quality control,” which SNCAT director Les Smith resisted.
But SNCAT chair del Cohen considered that issue “a lot of posturing.” She said that the real problem was the unwillingness of SNCAT to cut off community gadflys like Sam Dehne, who appear at local government meetings carried on SNCAT and who may also have their own community access programs. Reprisals against those community activists would have breached the long practices of community access television nationally.
“They don’t like some of our more vocal dissidents. … Part of the controversy, you may remember, a few weeks ago between SNCAT and the county was they wanted us to edit it [comments by community activists] out,” del Cohen said.
If that was the case, the word didn’t reach everyone. County Commissioner Kitty Jung said, “I have never heard of nor would approve stifling public comment.”
In some markets around the nation, the cutoff of community access television has been justified on grounds that with sites like YouTube, there is less need for the local programs—though sometimes those claims came from competing media. And some of them went further than just calling for an end to the community programming. They also called for an end to the local government channels.
“Why have a city TV channel, if you can provide taxpayers access to public meetings via the city’s website?” asked an editorial in the Lansing, Mich., State Journal, a Gannett newspaper. “Why provide public dollars to community groups when they can tout their offerings via a YouTube video and a website?”
But defenders of community access television say YouTube and such sites do not have the local orientation of groups like SNCAT, whose audience is entirely local.
The principal reason community access television did not survive in Reno seems to be that it had few influential advocates. Local government officials were concerned about their own operations. State legislators were pursuing a deregulation agenda. The only ones promoting community access was its immediate constituency—people and groups without a lot of juice. Once they lost the earmarked funding source, its political position became much weaker. So those quirky public access programs are no more.