I wrote this article several years ago, after Fayetteville's public access - after having been available to most residents of Washington County for 25 years - was suddenly yanked from their screen by Cox Cable, leaving only viewers in fayetteville with access to the programming. True, one can now see the stations offerings on the Internet, it's still not quite the same thing as having them offered on cable.
The Inconvenience of Free Speech
Devotees of public access take a hit in Washington County
Written by Richard S. Drake
For many, it was the first inkling that anything was amiss. On January 14, producers and allies of Fayetteville's Community Access Television received an alarming E-mail from the C.A.T. Staff.
You may or may not be aware of an important issue that affects the future of CAT in Washington County. Recently, both the City of Fayetteville and Washington County separately renegotiated their Cox Cost Contract with Cox Cable. Though Fayetteville decided to ask for many benefits for CAT on the Fayetteville contract, Washington County decided to allow their old contract to stand. However, Cox entered a provision into their contract with Washington County which means that after January 26th 2005, CAT will not air in the following cities:
There has been a proposal that in those cities, CAT may be replaced with the Jones Center's channel. Needless to say, CAT has many viewers and producers who are residents of the above-mentioned cities. One obvious matter for concern is that these producers, and their friends, families, and organizations deserve to be able to see the programming they produce! Another concern is that for residents of smaller towns, CAT may be the only forum available to create and air video. Certainly, many nonprofit organizations and schools in those towns look to CAT for their media needs.
And so began what is only the most recent public debate over public access television in Northwest Arkansas. Celebrating 25 years of serving the community on April 1, public access has long been a lightning rod for those who find that free speech is far better in the abstract than in reality.
At this point I need to tell you that I am past-president of the board of directors of Community Access Televison, and have been producing programs for almost 15 years.
There has been a lot of thought given to exactly what the motivation of Cox Cable might be in this matter. The specter of media consolidation has been suggested, as well as the oft-proposed regional arts channel, which some have hoped might replace the nuisance of public access.
And a few are referring to the "Culture Wars" which now threaten everything from cartoons to music. And, given the frank comments by at least one representative of Cox, freedom of speech is also very much at stake in this instance.
C.A.T. Manager Sky Blaylock says, "The Cox representative, James Anderson, spoke before the Elkins city council, and actually stated that there had been complaints about C.A.T. programming having the F-word and nudity while children could watch during the day. We have found nothing in any of our records since 2003 [when Blaylock became manager] that there has ever been a complaint about day-time programming."
Nevertheless, the canard that C.A.T. regularly schedules such programming in the day or during evening "prime time" hours is trotted out all too often by those with no evidence to back up what they are saying. Daily newspapers will often print the charges verbatim, without any checking up to verify the accusations.
The point could also be made that Cox regularly offers channels which might also offend viewers. Those channels, however, are profitable for a cable company; public access channels bring no revenue to a cable outfit.
And Fayetteville is far from alone in its struggles; many access stations across the United States face similar situations.
"The point needs to be made that this is the old switcheroo, " C.A.T. board member Colleen Pancake claimed at the Government Channel roundtable discussion. "They are trying to switch out a channel, and say it's the same, but they are not the same. I can not stress this enough. Freedom of speech is the corner stone of our democracy. To switch it out for a channel that doesn't have that as its most important point - it is at their discretion whether or not they choose to air a program.
"At C.A.T. we don't have that. We support freedom of speech, which means that everyone has access. That [Jones TV] is not an access channel."
Public access stations do not have the right to turn programming away, nor would most want that right. Blaylock says, "The only thing we can not air is something that is illegal. But if someone has something that legally they want to put out to the community, we have to put it on the air. There is nothing that we can censor, unless something is illegal.
"The people who submit programming to the channel accept responsibility for their programs. They sign a statement of compliance saying that everything in their program is legal."
The battles have covered a far-ranging field over the past quarter of a century. From its birth as Fayetteville Open Channel on Dickson Street, to its current home as Community Access Television (located on Rock Street), public access has been both praised and condemned over the years.
Through all of the battles over the years, public access has served as a tapestry of Fayetteville and the smaller towns around, serving a a combination religious, art, political, and music channel - plus scores of other subjects too numerous to mention. The programs range from mainstream to edgy and avant garde; one thing public access has never been accused of is being "bland." As most programs are produced by members of the community, it is "public access" in the truest sense.
But if Cox Cable succeeds in having their way, blandness may be the wave of the future for many viewers in Northwest Arkansas.
Beginning in late January, public access will confined to the Fayetteville area. Instead of access, viewers will now have Jones TV, which is a service of the Jones Center for families in Springdale. Since Jones TV is what is known as "leased access," content can be controlled by the channel operators. Fayetteville's public access channel is part of a larger system known as PEG, which stands for Public, Education and Government. As a result of the decision by Cox, no one outside Fayetteville will be able to see the Government Channel or the Educational Channel, run by the University of Arkansas.
Other than programs informing the community about access television, and a feature known as "Short Takes," in which local citizens can use the airwaves to speak about any subject they wish, the station merely serves as a conduit by which local producers may show programs of their own making. To that end, public access offers classes in television production, so that members of the community may become adept at making their own shows.
So while Community Access Television makes no decisions about content, Jones TV can and does. And, by extension, so does Cox Cable. James Anderson, the director of public relations and government affairs for this part of the state, was quoted in the Northwest Arkansas Times as saying with regard to the programming on Jones TV, "We thought their programming good enough to provide everywhere."
The situation is especially irksome for Sky Blaylock. . "This is a particularly bad time for us to be taken off in all the small towns in the Washinton County area, since it is the eve of our 25th anniversary, " she explained at a recent Roundtable discussion held on the Governmnet Channel.
At the same rountable, Jim Bemis, who has documeted ghe able struggles in Fayetteville for close to decade, said, "There was no announcement of what was going to happen until Cox put it in a newspaper ad.'
Bemis claims that Cox has been less than forthcoming when it comes to negotiation with various civic bodies in Northwest Arkansas.
Relations between Cox Cable and Fayetteville's public access provider have been rocky for some time. Several years ago, Cox made the decision to move C.A.T. from its position on channel 8, to channel 18, a move known as "slamming" in the public access community. In some cities, cable companies have moved access stations to as high as channel 99.
Since that time, representatives of C.A.T. have sought financial redress from Cox, in order to pay for the expense of new logos, and advertising. Though Cox has thus far balked, several cities across the United States have gotten remuneration from cable companies after they have been slammed.
Recently Fayetteville's Telecommunication Board recommended that Cox be dunned late fees for not paying the slam budget in a timely manner. This move is unlikely to impress Cox, however, which seems to have an almost cavalier attitude concerning its relations with the city of Fayetteville.
As of late January, Fayetteville residents are able to watch both C.A.T. and Jones TV. In a perfect world, that would seem a rather elegant solution, both for Fayetteville and for those areas no longer able to view C.A.T. But here are those who suspect that Jones may attempt to bid for the public access contract. There are those who worry, however, that a station emanating from an organization which has as one of its stated goals, "to glorify God," would be willing to run programs which run counter to their philosophy.
In 2004, C.A.T. Producer Bob Emenegger took a program he had made at C.A.T. with Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Mike Masterson. After it had been there for some time, Emenegger attempted to see what the status of the program was.
Emenegger says, "It was frustration trying to get a response. Finally I went to the Jones Center and was told ‘perhaps with some editing it might be ok.' What? Editing? I picked up my copy and left. Never heard from them again."
Emenegger says that the show was about either UFO's or death . He wonders if the subject matter is what made Jones TV reluctant to show his program.
Jones TV director Beth Mack takes issue with this, claiming that there were audio problems in the program that were responsible for it being rejected. To date, Bob Emenegger has been the only C.A.T. producer to take programming up to Jones TV, though that situation is bound to change.
It is difficult to determine exactly what the guidelines for programming at Jones might be, since they are not posted on their website. However, Mack said in a telephone interview that the guidelines would be in line with the stated purpose of the Jones Center, which is to, "Strengthen families, build community, and glorify God."
It might be difficult to imagine that programming by the Fayetteville Free Thinkers, a local group who challenge religious dogma, - which has been featured on C.A.T. - might be allowed on Jones TV.
Some elected officials feel that they were not presented with all of the facts before signing off on the agreement with Cox. At least one Washington County JP called Don Bright's radio talk show on KOFC, claiming that he believed that Cox had not been entirely forthcoming concerning the schedule and the aseven year contract with the county signed with the cable company.
Another claimed that the cable changes had come in "under the radar." If elected officials are left feeling sand-bagged by Cox, how might regular citizens feel?
C.A.T. Producer Bemis, an activist who has also performed yeoman's work in documenting the cable situation on a website (www.telecomWatch.us), says, "Cox is big enough to bully, and they do. They do what they can get away with." He also points to the fact that six major corporations in the United States control most of the media.
"They control what we see," he adds. "You may think you are controlling it by clicking at home, but they have already clicked what you are going to see."
In Elkins, alderman Tim Martens took issue with Cox over their decision. He said that he was concerned because Fayetteville and Elkins have strong ties, and people in Elkins would no longer be able to watch Fayetteville Government meetings.
rather than apologizing, Cox representative Anderson answered that Fayetteville's PEG channels should never have gone beyond Fayetteville. He also made the claim (without providing any evidence) that Cox receives more complaints about prime time programming on C.A.T. than about any other channel. Anderson also made the claim that people complain about nudity and profanity on the prime time schedule, a charge the staff at C.A.T. contest. "Adult" programming is shown after midnight, which doesn't seem to fit even a liberal definition of "prime time."
This has prompted one member of the telecommunications Board to request documentation concerning this accusation.
And Marvin Hilton, Cable Administrator for the city of Fayetteville, has said that the actions of Cox are tantamount to a desire on the part of the cable company to control the content of what county viewers may see.
For their part, it may be that Jones TV is unaware of what C.A.T. actually does. Jones TV Executive Director Mack, in an interview with the Northwest Arkansas Times, touted Fayetteville oriented programming, and a community message board - both of which have been on Fayetteville's public access for 25 years.
In her telephone interview, Mack told me that she "absolutely" has no problem with Jones TV and C.A.T. being on the same channel line-up, as it is in Fayetteville.
But when pressed for how she might feel about Jones and C.A.T. being on the same channel line-up in Washington County, she said that she would have to defer that question to Cox representative James Anderson, who has already both praised Jones TV, and said that Cox had complaints about C.A.T. programming. It might lead one to question just how much autonomy Jones TV has if the director is hesitant about expressing an opinion about something of this nature.
In truth, complaints about programming on C.A.T. are far and few between, though, as if by magic, they always seem to appear when public access is in the news. One long-time critic (and former C.A.T. employee) is particularly incensed because Free Speech TV - downloaded from satellite - runs on C.A.T. from 3am to 6am.
Claiming (in a complaint he recently made to City Hall) that he programs his DVR to record the block of programming each night, and then scans the program so that he can find anything which he might find objectionable. He had much to say about gay oriented programming at FSTV, some of which he claims is explicit.
In an E-mail that he requested to passed along to the Telecomm Board, he wrote, "Nearly every show liberally uses the "F" word. It is *never* bleeped out..This type of thing airs almost every night on FSTV. CAT claims this block of programming is 'sponsored' and therefore no responsible for its content. Other feeds are available on Dish Network to play other programming, but CAT devotes the entire overnight slot to ONLY FSTV and no one else.
"But not only is the content questionable, but the very fact CAT reserves such a huge block of time to such a biased and politically slanted channel like FSTV is highly objectionable. The ultra left-wing FSTV is enjoying free air play in our city...at our expense!"
There are a number of small programs on C.A.T. which are downloaded from satellite feed, such as Amy Goodman's Democracy Now. Far from being controlled by a left-wing conspiracy, however, conservatives have also used C.A.T. to great advantage - both with locally produced programs and imported programs made elsewhere.
During prime time, however, locally produced programming is given priority.
At times, the C.A.T. staff is almost accused of exerting powerful mental control over many viewers. A recent telephone complaint by a man who said he "had to watch" a program (at 12:30am) featuring the liberal use of profanity, as well as a "fat guy in a g-string" thanking local governments for providing the channel.
The caller further said that such programming should be illegal, and requested a copy of the show, so that he could show it to local churches, in order to gather support in stopping programs of a similar nature. "Good people aren't going to sit back and appreciate this crap," he told the person who took his call.
There seems to be something almost mesmerizing about adult programming; many of those filing complaints report that they watch an entire program, writing down everything they claim offends them.
Several of those who have complained over the years decry the use of their tax dollars to pay for programming they find objectionable. However, Cox pays a franchise fee to the city, and C.A.T.'s funds are derived from that.
It should also be pointed out that only a small percentage of C.A.T. programming is of an adult nature. Since programming is provided by the community, it ranges from religious programming to political discourse, and everything in between.
But it's always easier to find criticism than praise. Yet whenever public access is threatened in Fayetteville, people emerge from all parts of the community, ready to stand between power brokers and a channel dedicated to freedom of speech.
Since the channel change, C.A.T. has received several calls from those in the county viewing area, upset that they no longer receive public access.
Some in city government may prefer Jones TV for the same reason that a regional arts channel was touted over public access - it is attractive and noncontroversial. That such a channel may ultimately bore people who are used to local issues discussed on C.A.T. may not matter to those in power.
As I wrote before, in a perfect world, Community Access Television and Jones TV could exist on the same channel line-up, and viewers could watch both. But only in Fayetteville is that likely to happen. The rest of Washington County will only be able to watch a channel which is as bland as it is pretty.
The Jones TV schedule is is broken into blocks of programming. "Classic Arts" are shown nationally, and features musical performances - many as much as 40 years old. According to their website, Jones TV airs them "to tempt the viewer to go out and take advantage of the variety of arts available in our local community.
There are also programs on pets, money management, yoga and health, as well as educational programming from the Annenberg/CPB Channel.
These are all fine programs, but viewers used to seeing local issues discussed at length, or alternative points of view presented may soon be noticing the spice missing from their local programming.
Of course, for others, this will be perfect. If we could keep gays or peace activists (for example) off local television, they say, they would be glad to support C.A.T. Not to mention the late night shows where a fake penis might be in full view.
Sky Blaylock says, "What you'll notice when public access is gone, is that everything is going to look the same. Just like the broadcast networks do now. They all look the same. The reason that access stands out is that it looks different. The programming on here is produced by the community members.
"Television could have been the most wonderful thing for our world. For social change, for education, communication. But instead it is used to sell products. And that is what we are looking at now, which is why we have involved media literacy into our training program, to teach people about how commercials affect them. And how they can think for themselves."
It's possible that viewers have been spoiled by having a channel n their midst on which so many viewpoints have free access. And bitter experience has taught us all that its easy to deny access to people and ideas that are not in line with "mainstream" thinking.
And when restrictions are placed on who or what can be shown on TV, the list never shrinks; it only grows larger with time.
Little Rock Free Press - 2005