Decline of Cable’s Promise

Tech savvy writers on the blogosphere zeroed in on one issue yesterday: net neutrality, the jargon-y  buzzwords used to define proposals requiring that all Websites be given an equal shot at reaching audiences (that is how I read it).

The idea is retain the status quo and to prevent the Internet from favoring deep-pocketed Websites over the average Joe, creating a tiered system of packages, akin to what cable operators provide in their dizzying array of package plans.

The irony is that cable TV itself once offered this promise, via public access TV. In the LA Weekly this week, Patrick Range McDonald’s cover story in the LA Weekly chronicles the demise of public access — a carnival of characters with their own shows, often rants against city officials. The often crudely produced programming nevertheless provided a soapbox and even broke a few major scandals involving waste of public funds, such as an ill-fated Los Angeles high school project built over a hazardous methane gas area.

McDonald pegs the decline to the 2006 passage of a California law, driven by phone companies like AT&T and Verizon, that ultimately let cable operators off the hook when it came to shelling out money for public access. Instead, it will be left to local cities to come up with the funds to upgrade equipment and allot time for programming — fat chance in these lean budgetary times.

It may be odd to be arguing over public access, all but forgotten in the hundreds of channels. Most of the programming is crudely produced and unwatchable. But when cable was rolled out across the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s, public access was the great promise, the idea that television could be democratized, like the Internet is today. Cities required substantial investments by cable companies in equipment, training and studios as the cost of entering the marketplace and getting franchise agreements.

In high school in the early 1980s, I actually hosted a local talk show in suburban Minneapolis, produced by my brother and his best friend, often with state legislators and local congressmen as guests and a regular poll where viewers could call in and cast their vote on various issues. Other than solidify my image as an undisputed media geek, it was good training for all of us in our careers ahead. But even before I left for college, the cable system had been sold to a new company, which promptly extracted new concessions from the cities to chip away at public access.  Public access still exists across the country today. Companies fulfill minimum requirements. But it is an afterthought at best.

The whole debate over an “open” Internet has parallels to what happened to cable TV, and it will be interesting to see how the incoming Obama administration figures out to do with one of technology’s most pressing issues. Obama says he supports “net neutrality,” but as we learned from “public access,” that can take on many different meanings.

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