Nashville's channel-surfing insomniacs know the words "public access" well. But for the uninitiated (and better rested), the term is as much a warning as an invitation. Just south of Channel 20 on your boob-tube dial, low-def wonders are streaming, waiting to suck you in like an oddball infomercial at 2 a.m. You've seen Lost? How about two guys with a model airplane on the banks of Percy Priest? Big fan of American Idol? Here's your neighbor singing into a hairbrush in front of the mirror. It's far more real than reality TV.
On these idiosyncratic channels, free from concern for advertisers (there are none) or Nielsen ratings (you won't get cancelled for poor viewership), you can get up out of your chair, look into the camera and do your best Howard Beale. You can sing songs about astrology — like the legendary Los Angeles novelty crooner Harvey Sid Fisher — or berate sinners in a nails-on-blackboard whine, like the notorious Dallas TV minister Jonathan Bell. Or, like the acclaimed public access channel run out of Germantown High School near Memphis, you can provide a mix of self-produced arts, news and current affairs programming that shames the local network affiliates. After all, you own the airwaves.
It's hard to imagine that George C. Stoney, considered the father of public access television, could have seen where we were headed, back when he was pioneering the everyman medium in the early 1970s. In our time, people make billions providing forums for free speech at its least topical — Google is making big bank off of your cat videos — while what appears as a wide array of media sources is actually owned by a small group of white guys.
That's why public access is more valuable than ever.
Its origins are as simple as they are hard to explain. In exchange for using public property such as poles and fiber optic lines — satellite companies are, for obvious reasons, exempt — cable providers sign franchise agreements with the cities where they do business. As a part of these agreements, cities can stipulate that cable companies contribute funds to maintain specifically designated PEG (public, educational, government) channels. (The paperwork between Comcast and Nashville, a public document, requires that Comcast pay Metro a franchise fee of 5 percent of gross revenues — $7.5 million in 2010 — as compensation for use of public rights-of-way, and that it contribute $100,000 in PEG support, annually.) These funds allow community access to the airwaves, hence protecting the public against monolithic control of the TV medium — whether it's by invaders, aliens, Russkies or Kabletown.
Of those, the forces of commerce are by far the most insidious. And that's the challenge Nashville's PEG channels currently face: They're locked in a PR battle for increased funding from the city's dominant cable provider, Comcast.
The corporate cable giant recently seized local headlines by alleging that city officials have been unreasonable in their demands. According to Comcast, Metro has insisted upon a 1,200 percent increase in its share of your monthly cable bill — which sounds terrifying, until you learn it means raising the fee from 5 cents to 65 cents per bill. (AT&T is also beginning to contribute a prorated amount, as their product, U-Verse, expands its customer base in Nashville.)
Metro officials have dismissed Comcast's outrage as fancy PR footwork, insisting that they've been neither demanding nor unreasonable and that the 65-cent number is merely a holding figure in negotiations. Moreover, they say, Comcast has continued to raise the rates it charges customers throughout the 16-year franchise agreement, without increasing contributions to PEG. (The City Paper reports that Comcast denied a request for a list of all fee increases since 1995.)
Not surprisingly, Comcast's version of events goes somewhat differently. In an email sent to the Scene last week, Sara Jo Houghland, Comcast's director of government affairs and public relations, said Comcast is "supportive of Metro and PEG" and that they are "proud to be Metro's partner." Still, the disagreement about who said what and when continues. Houghland echoed previous statements made by Comcast's area vice president for Nashville, John Gauder, saying that Metro had consistently presented a proposal, not a "holding figure," for $1.2 million (the 1,200 percent increase) in annual PEG fees from the start.
"We consistently responded that a 1,200 percent increase was far too excessive, would affect our customers and would damage our company in the Nashville market," she said. "ONLY [sic] after this dispute became public, did Metro say that the 1,200 percent increase was simply a 'holding figure.' "
As for how it will affect Comcast customers, or if it should at all, the two sides are no closer to each other. PEG advocates argue that, in theory, funding for public access stations is not intended to be a tax on subscribers. Of course, if cable providers raise their rates to cover the revenue hit, it can easily become one in practice. When asked, Houghland wouldn't say whether an increase in PEG funding would mean bigger cable bills for subscribers, though her answer would seem to be a thinly veiled "Yes."
"The FCC has been consistent in encouraging cable operators to list PEG fees on the bill, as a charge that should be visible to and collected from cable consumers," she said. "Federal law does not expect that PEG fees should be paid from operating expenses associated with gaining a franchise."
Metro's IT Director, Keith Durbin, says that when it comes to your monthly cable bill, the city's hands are clean.
"Metro has no ability to dictate rates for Comcast's customers, nor do we have the ability to dictate how their bill is stated," he told the Scene. "I certainly accept that the FCC allows them to delineate the PEG support fee on the bill."
Houghland says the people should be heard and, citing an independent third-party survey of Comcast customers, that they've already taken Comcast's side.
"Those most impacted by any change in fees are Comcast customers," she said. "They should have the loudest voice, and they have clearly stated they aren't interested in more programming and certainly don't want an increase in PEG fees."
Whether such estimations about the will of the people are accurate will soon be known. In a community meeting to be held at 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 30, at Metro's Howard School Building, citizens will have the chance to properly lend their voices to the increasingly public squabble between the city and Comcast. Until now, public comment on the issue has mostly come in the form of anonymous Internet posts. But at the meeting, the people will be able to address officials who will recommend the city's final proposal.
Current negotiations notwithstanding, community television in Nashville has faced its share of difficulties — a noble proposition plagued by frequent fits of static. Veterans of the arts and entertainment community see the city's PEG channels as an often mismanaged and underappreciated resource, in a city ripe for such an outlet.
Yet they also see the channels' new organization and leadership as a golden opportunity for Nashville's PEG channels to become what they should be — a showcase for the city's artists and musicians, a source of much-needed local public affairs programming, and a celebration of all the squirrelly, rambunctious and sometimes bizarre things that make our community unique. You want to be a star? Here's the one place in Music City where that's easy.