In an Internet connected world, can or should Community Access TV, as we know it, be sustained? Yes and No.
Everything this experiment in democracy has at its core remains a vital part of sustaining democratic communities: building community through the production of ideas, opinions, stories, news, information and/or performance while valuing free speech, individual expression, inclusion and diversity. There is no comparable network of local organizations dedicated to being ‘of, by and for’ the voice of the people. If seen collectively, it is the largest television network in America. However, it is not a monolith. As a network, Community TV stations, many organized through the Alliance for Community Media, have shared principles, values and leaders that keep them from being rudderless, but they are as different as they are alike.
The Internet’s potential for worldwide connectivity provides many opportunities for expression and the possibilities may include a variant on this experiment someday. But thus far there is no Web amalgamation of local entities that is anything like community TV. As an experiment, it represents the diversity of America. It engages people agreeing and disagreeing about what makes a difference to them locally where they still have the potential to influence outcomes.
Yes, the Internet changed Community Access TV as it has many aspects of daily living. The Internet provides the infrastructure for a variety of information collections and services within the World Wide Web. For Community TV it is another tool for content delivery.
If the Internet is ubiquitous and free to all Ignoring those pop up ads and digital divide will the eroding uniqueness of local television still be desirable as local television?
• Comfortable watching of content from a living room recliner Smart TVs already let you view YouTube this way;
• Sharing the same viewing experience as your neighbor Smartphones already let you share links to what you want others to also see;
• Community projects bringing folks together to tell community stories The social distancing pandemic has made virtual meetings a mere calendar entry away;
• Commercial-free viewing Assuming the local station is not infiltrated by self-promoters; and
• Hyper-local media that is not controlled by corporate media But may be captured by self-appointed power brokers.
For now, Cable TV Community Access is a delivery system for hyper-local content: content important to the shut-ins who cannot attend church Who are not Internet savvy, commuters who cannot attend a public meeting Although they are likely watching a replay on the Internet, a child proud of his/her report or talent as it is shared with everyone in town, immigrants learning a new language as they listen to the same news stories in two different languages, or new homeowners eager to learn about their community.
Few singular events change a world view. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I believed that what the Internet could not be, or easily replace, was the potential to meet and gather in person, teach, discuss and share what is local based on the reasonable needs and interests of a community. Then the socially starved world experienced the rise of the racial justice movement in rallies, protests and online conversations creating more community engagement opportunities than community TV could envision supporting.
2020 has been nothing but evolutionary, eclipsing 1965: the bridge in Selma Alabama, the race riots in Watts, The Voting Rights Act, Vietnam War, Medicare, the Gemini Space Program, Mini-skirts and CT imposing a 9% Gross Income Tax on cable companies that was still being adjudicated in 1990 before the FCC.
Social distancing and essential business guidelines made some community TV stations go dark temporarily, or become a platform for archival reruns or virtually attended message boards, or as was the case for my station, busier than ever as essential media. Essential media stations assisted with online graduations, extended redistribution of online faith-based gatherings, and repurposed online community conversations into digestible resources. New content included fitness programs geared toward the silver sneakers generation and a children’s storytime in the late afternoon.
As people gather virtually, there is a palpable hunger to engage in person. So what is the real and future need for physical spaces to make media? There is a need for youth to discover, learn and experiment interactively with technology, and elders to stay connected inter-generationally in a public space. Locally WPAA-TV and Community Media Center is preparing to be that public space. We are not yet all we can be but our bones are good.