Fwd: Quarrel over cable public access aired

From: Wade Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Mon 16 Dec 2002 - 16:00:33 GMT

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    All politics is local....

    *****

    Quarrel over cable public access aired

    By Sarah Schweitzer, Globe Staff, 12/16/2002

    LEE - In the annals of public access television programming, the video showcasing antiabortionists and the one denouncing war with Iraq hardly qualified as risque.

    Strident they were. Plucked from different ends of the political spectrum, to be sure. All of which might have been just fine for the Western Massachusetts public access Channel 11, save one thing: The videos were out-of-town productions.

    ''We should be talking to Joe or Bob about what's happening on Main Street, not the news as it appears to people in New York,'' said Malcolm Chisholm, chairman of the local cable commission and Woodstock-attendee turned patent attorney.

    In this eclectic working-class homebase of CTSB-TV, which sends its shows to cable subscribers in Lee and four tourist-prone towns, the question of public access television's appropriate role in the community has fueled a brouhaha.

    As things tend to go in small towns, this one has the emotional markings of an internecine spat. The executive director was not just fired two weeks ago, but locked out of the station. Her two staff members quit in protest and the station has since operated with scattershot programming and a skeletal staff.

    But at root, people here say, the dispute reflects an increasingly pivotal question for the country's 1,500 cable access stations: Should the channels be the domain of homespun productions, like footage of selectmen's meetings and talk shows starring area residents, or platforms for residents who want to offer their views using videos produced by groups such as the American Friends Service Committee, the Philadelphia-based Quaker organization, or the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy institute located in Washington D.C.?

    ''Over the last few years, importing programming has been a neat little discovery,'' said Jeff Hansell, chairman of the Northeast Region Alliance for Community Media. ''What people have found is that they can bring in a program produced by a national office to make a point that they might not have the resources to produce themselves.''

    The issue is particularly important in communities such as Lee and the satellite CTSB-TV towns of Great Barrington, Lenox, Stockbridge, and Sheffield, where major television networks relay little community news and public access. Townspeople often look to the cable station as a critical conduit for information about local doings, with public access provided as part of the cable company's franchise pact.

    As such, David Lane, chairman of the CTSB-TV board of directors, said the preference of the board is for locally produced programming that can't be seen elsewhere.

    ''That's the goal of the cable access, the very tenets,'' said Lane, a retired mechanic who works part time at the popular Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge.

    But ensuring the primacy of local shows over out-of-town ones is not easy. The US Supreme Court has ruled that public access channels are the equivalent of public parks, where any town crier may make his beliefs known by climbing atop a soapbox, or, in the case of public access channels, by proffering a videotape.

    Not every video necessarily is made part of the programming. The Federal Communications Commission does not regulate public access channels. The stations can't turn away submissions, but obscenity laws apply.

    Space demands can bump some programming. In New York City, for example, there are so many requests submitted to the public access channels that a lottery is held to determine which ones are shown, though attempts are made to use all.

    Too many submissions is not an issue in Lee. The cable access channel is relatively small, transmitted into 8,000 homes, which makes for an estimated 20,000 viewers. Most of its programming traditionally has been selectmen and school board meetings. There are some locally produced shows, including ''Suddenly Seniors!'' and ''Getting to Know You.''

    But a good chunk of the programming has been used for bulletin boards, screenfuls of information about local happenings.

    When Elizabeth Parker, a Mount Holyoke graduate, left a Vermont public access channel to become executive director of CTSB-TV in July 2001, she sought to plug holes in programming, in part with imported shows.

    While she said she created some local programming, such as filming a local youth choir and Great Barrington Fire Safety Week, she also encouraged the public to submit videos dealing with issues of importance to them.

    ''There are a lot of outlets looking for a voice,'' Parker said.
    ''If people want school lunch menus, fine. We encouraged that. But there are other interests as well, and this offers a place for people to open up.''

    Imported submissions increased, she said, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks sparked the formation of a group called Community Conversations, which tapped into a vein of programming they felt expressed their views.

    Katherine McCabe was among those who submitted tapes (hers from the American Friends Service Committee), such as one titled
    ''The Unheard Voices of Iraqi Women'' and another showing an address made by Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguistics professor and archcritic of American US foreign policy.

    ''I'm really concerned about what's happening with the media and how it's so filtered,'' McCabe said. ''Public access seemed like one avenue for getting the message out.''

    The programs have not been well-received by some viewers. Parker said she received nearly a dozen anonymous calls saying that the shows dealing with Iraq were offensive and anti-American.

    The conflict, Parker said, escalated until she was fired two weeks ago in a dramatic fashion, ordered out of the station and told not to come back. She has hired an attorney and is considering suing the board for creating a hostile work environment.

    Board members say Parker was fired for not doing her job. They say she failed to properly record selectmen's meetings, with some meetings taped without audio, and shown nonetheless, several times.

    Parker said it was the board's conservative leanings that help explain her ouster, with members uncomfortable with her ideas.

    This is not a politically conservative area. It votes heavily Democratic; sending state Representative Christopher Hodgkins, a self-described liberal, to the State House from 1983 until his retirement this year. Union workers with strong prolabor bents are numerous, as are socially liberal upper-crust sorts, many transplanted from New York.

    But it is a rooted New England sort of place that is not opposed to change, so long as it's delivered slowly, as one local person described it.

    At Joe's Diner, famed setting for Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post illustration of a police officer and would-be runaway boy eyeing each other as they sit on diner stools, a few regulars agreed this past week that selectmen meetings were about as far-reaching as CTSB needs to be.

    ''We get enough news on CNN - we get tramped to death with news,'' said Richard Burns, a carpenter who tuned into the station the previous evening for a selectmen's vote on condominium development. ''Why not keep public access for the local news?''

    Paul Collins, a former chief probation officer, said, ''We don't need someone to get a personal forum for their extremes.''

    ''Right,'' Burns said. ''If they had something on about Iraq, I probably wouldn't watch it.''

    Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at schweitzer@globe.com.

    This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 12/16/2002.
    Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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