Publishers have it made. (I should know, I’ve been one for eight years.) For us, access is easy. Anyone can become a publisher–all you need is a PC, page layout software, a printing vendor and lots of stamps.

Producing TV programming shouldn’t be much different, but it is. All you need is a camcorder, a PC for editing and a TV network willing to carry your program. Producing the show isn’t really much more difficult than publishing, but gaining distribution through a TV network is very different from buying stamps.

That’s because the Post Office is a “common carrier.” It provides nondiscriminatory access to “all-comers”–just like the phone company. In fact, so supportive is the Post Office of the publishers’ mission to provide information, that it gives us an 80 percent discount (in the form of second class mail). Our founding fathers created this postal subsidy for all publishers because they believed the free flow of information and diverse opinions from all sources were indispensable to democracy and freedom.

Unfortunately, cable networks don’t feel the same way. They like providing information only when it’s theirs.

Enter Congress

Ten years ago Congress realized that 65 percent of the country subscribes to cable TV, and that the public has an interest in the free flow of information over those cable wires.

So Congress created regulations requiring cable operators to provide access to “all comers.” Congress ordered cable operators to set aside 10 percent of their channels for leasing to anyone willing to pay a reasonable fee. Independent TV producers felt that this would be cheaper and more efficient than using the Post Office to deliver plastic VHS cassettes to the viewers’ households.

This seemed like a great idea. After all, the phone company makes out okay simply by providing carriage for voice and data; leasing out only 10 percent of their delivery capacity won’t do the cable operators any harm. This way, independent producers can market their programs directly to the viewers.

But the cable operators don’t like the idea; so they charge rates so high no producer can ever make a profit. Last year Congress decided to regulate these rates for leased access; still, cable operators manage to stifle the direct marketing of TV programs from producers to cable viewers.

One great exception to this noncompliance: Viacom Cable of San Francisco. When it comes to leased access, this local cable operator is one of the most cooperative in the country.

Recently S.F. Viacom took some heat for showing some indecent TV programs. But leased access is not only about soft porn, even though that seems to be one of the most popular uses for it right now.

That’s not surprising. Pornographers are usually the first to exploit new distribution media. Once they succeed in drawing attention to a new medium, legitimate information providers invariably follow. Remember, during their first few years of operation, porn dominated the video software and 900-number industries. CD-ROM now has its share. Pornography serves as a good indicator of emerging media that might prove successful.

Access to the Superhighway

Everybody’s heard about the coming Information Superhighway. But if policies like leased access and “nondiscriminatory access” are not enforced, the Information Superhighway will be more of a toll road–and the cable operators will act as the gatekeepers.

Every Sunday night 20 million people watch 60 Minutes. Twenty million. That’s like everyone in the entire San Francisco Bay Area reading the same book at the same time. Even if all 20 million chose to read Sunday night, you can be sure that they won’t read the same thing. Some will read a Steven King novel, others a book pertinent to their business. Some will read the San Francisco Examiner, and some will read one of thousands of magazines.

There are so many things to read; such diversity helps to make our society unique. George Orwell feared the opposite; Chairman Mao provided it.

Open access to information from diverse sources on varying subjects keeps a society healthy and rich with culture. When we all use the same information, we tend to act like the mass media treats us–that is, the lowest common denominator. We drink the same soft drinks, buy the same products, use the same slang and dread the same horrors we see on our TV screens.


A Plethora of POVs

When 1000 channels come your way, you’d best ask who and where they’re coming from. New York and Hollywood points of view (POV) have dominated America’s screens for too long. Time for different, multiple POVs.

Your favorite magazines, most valued textbooks, even most mediocre paperbacks could all be available on video someday–depending on what the cable operators do.

They are the gatekeepers. If they can make more money running movies like Basic Instinct 24 hours a day on four different channels, all month long (so you’ll never have to wait more than 30 minutes to view it), that’s what they’ll do.

Each time a cable operator makes such a decision, nearly 6,000 independent producers lose the chance to air their programming. Four channels can carry some 200 half-hour programs each day–that’s nearly 6,000 each month.

The opportunity for diversity has never been greater. Open access ensures a multiplicity of POVs. Time for all independent videomakers to voice their support of leased access.

That means you. Because the POV we lose could be yours.

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