Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

How many cities have access TV? More than you might think.

Published:  December 17, 2010

Guest post by Rob McCausland

"Do we need PEG anymore?" asked Ellen Goodman in an FCC Future of Media hearing she co-moderated last April. Panelists Joaquin Alvarado and Nan Rubin responded, in so many words, yes. Another response however could be added from the countless municipalities who use community access cable TV day-in and day-out to present live and repeat coverage of various government meetings to their residents.

How long must these municipalities remain "countless"? How many, you may ask? — and which — U.S. cities are using community access cable TV? Among the major cities (the 276 with populations greater than 100,000), it's actually easier to list those which aren’t — a mere 22.

Major U.S. Cities Not Cablecasting Their Government Meetings

Major U.S. Cities Cablecasting Their Government Meetings

In 2000, while working as Cablecast Manager for BNN-TV, Boston's public access provider, I created a web-based list of U.S. community access television providers with websites, broken out by management type, which I continued to maintain up through 2007. Someone placed a version of this list on Wikipedia in 2008, to which people have been contributing ever since. This fall, I created a Google Doc spreadsheet currently listing over 1,800 U.S. community access television providers, using information from that Wikipedia list as well as other resources. (See below for details.) Access providers themselves are now contributing updated information to this Google Doc spreadsheet.

In the process of assembling this list anew, I noticed how many major cities were turning up. I then came across Wikipedia's List of United States cities by population, which ranks by population size all 276 cities of 100,000 or more. After a little more web-surfing and a few dozen phone calls (thank you to everyone who responded), I was able to put together a second Google Doc spreadsheet, a subset of the first: Major U.S. Cities Cablecasting Their Government Meetings.

Of these 276 major U.S. cities, 256 of them—93%—televise the routine meetings of one or more of their governmental bodies. All but two of these cities use cable television to do so. (South Bend, Indiana had cablecast their Council meetings until the effects of recent state video franchising legislation kicked in; now their televised Council meetings are webcast only. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, Council coverage is produced and distributed by the over-the-air PBS-affiliated broadcaster, WTCI.)

Of the 254 largest cities cablecasting their government meetings, 197 of them (78%) do so on channels that they themselves manage. Nonprofit organizations manage those channels in 20 of those cities, while the cable companies manage them in 28. These two Google maps show the 254 major cities who use community access channels for government meeting coverage and the 22 major cities who do not.

In those 276 largest cities, in addition to the 254 utilizing community access channels for meeting coverage (and other community-based purposes), there are at least an additional 206 organizations providing public services over community access channels. That's, at a minimum, a total of 460 access providers. 209 of which are government agencies, 78 and 76 nonprofit organizations and public education departments respectively, and 52 are higher education institutions.

It is worth noting that these 460 access providers represent only about 25% of the more than 1,800 I've currently been able to identify for the entire country. Certainly there are many more community access providers yet to be added to that list.

Understandably, as one private citizen, my answer of "Yes" to Ellen Goodman's question would not count for much. However, the facts are that millions of residents in thousands of communities are currently being served vital local information over community access channels managed by more than:

  • 800 government agencies and multi-jurisdictional authorities,
  • 250 public school systems,
  • 175 colleges and universities, and
  • 450 nonprofit organizations.

All of these public media services are making use of channels that were fairly negotiated with private cable companies as partial compensation for those companies' use of the public rights-of-way—as envisioned and allowed for by Congress in the 1984 Cable Act.

The Knight Commission Report on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy acknowledged the vital role these channels play:

“Public policy should enable local communities to capitalize on all available tools for connecting citizens to local information flows... Public, educational, and government cable channels belong in a favored tier in terms of ease of access.”

The thousands of people providing these community access services, and the millions of people receiving - and co-producing - them, will surely want to see them continued and strengthened in whatever media landscape the future may hold.

Sources: A variety of sources listing community access providers exists online. In addition to Ben Sheldon's Mapping Access, many can be found, some with working links, in the lists of channels carrying popular programs, including: American Democracy Television, Army Newswatch (pdf), Classic Arts Showcase, Democracy Now! and Recovery Month. A list of Washington counties and municipalities televising their government meetings, Local Government Broadcasting of Public Meetings, is maintained by the state’s Research and Services Center. Information about additional sources is always welcome. Thanks in advance to any of you who may forward more to me at rghmcc [at] gmail.com.

About the author: Rob McCausland has been involved in community access television since 1979, when he co-founded the Boston Cable Access Television Coalition, which advocated for access provisions in Boston’s first cable franchise. He has served as Studio and Cablecast Manager for Boston Neighborhood Network, Executive Director for Beverly Community Access Media, and most recently, as Director of Information and Organizing Services for the Alliance for Community Media. Currently he is the Virginia representative on the Alliance of Community Media’s Mid-Atlantic Region Board of Directors, and serves on the editorial board for the Community Media Review.

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