Public-access television in the United States is a form of citizen media, similar to Canada's community channels, Australia's community television and other models of media created by private citizens.
Due to the 1984 Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act, US cable companies are required to fund local organizations to provide training and access to media technology and cable distribution on the local cable systems. This legislation was intended to enrich communities with the opportunity to produce community-initiated programming and address local issues and concerns on the electronic medium. In its conception, public-access television pertained only to the cable television technology of the times, but many public-access organizations now include television, radio and the internet within the spectrum of communications. Public-access television is one type of PEG access, short for Public, Educational, and Governmental, the three traditional structures of access within a municipality.
In 1968 the Dale City (Virginia) Jaycees' Junior Chamber of Commerce operated the first community-operated closed-circuit television channel in the United States, when Cable TV Incorporated gave a channel to the public-access center Dale City Television (DCTV), but poor financing, low-quality equipment and lack of a permanent studio contributed to the center's failure two years later.
According to Ralph Engelman's Origins of Public Access Cable Television 1966-1972, New York City's public-access began in 1968 by Fred Friendly, a television advisor to the Ford Foundation and chairman of Mayor John Lindsay's advisory task force on CATV and telecommunications, when he wrote a report recommending that cable companies set aside two channels the public could lease for a minor fee. The fee was opposed by others, and was later dropped. In July 1971 public access started.
From 1968 to 1970, Canadian film-maker Red Burns, who'd served on the National Film Board of Canada (NFB)'s Challenge For Change and George C. Stoney, who'd likewise served a guest role, co-founded the Alternative Media Center (AMC) at NYU in 1971. AMC started the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers, which is a public-access advocacy organization, with interns that help establish access centers throughout America. In 1972 Burns and Stoney worked with FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson to make the FCC cable access requirements.
The FCC issued its Third Report and Order in 1972, which required all cable systems in the top 100 U.S. television markets to provide three access-channels, one each for educational, local government and public use, where if there was insufficient demand for three in a particular market, the cable companies could offer fewer channels, but at least one, and any group or individual wishing to use the channels was guaranteed at least five minutes free. Also required was for cable companies to provide facilities and equipment with which people could produce shows.
The rule was amended in 1976 to include cable systems in communities with 3500 or more subscribers, and the cable companies had no discretion, but Midwest Video Corporation sued the FCC on the grounds that it had overstepped its authority in requiring the access channels, and in 1979 the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Midwest.
The 1984 Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act written by Senator Barry Goldwater, allowed local governments to require PEG channels, barred cable operators from exercising editorial control over content of programs carried on PEG channels, and absolved them from liability for that content.
Congress passed the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, which gave the FCC authority to create rules requiring cable operators to prohibit certain shows. The Alliance for Community Media and others brought suit, and in 1996 the U.S. Supreme Court held the law unconstitutional, in part because it required cable operators to act on behalf of the federal government to control expression based on content.
Currently the Alliance for Community Media and others are focusing on operational challenges after new deregulation rules across Texas are directly threatening PEG access.
PEG access is a government mandate that provides television production equipment, training and airtime on a local cable system so members of the public, educational system, and the government can produce their own shows and televise them to a mass audience.
Municipalities must take initiative and petition the cable operator to provide the funding for PEG access as laid out by law, but municipalities may also choose to take no action and will instead keep the franchise fees in a general fund. A municipality may also choose to allow Governmental access but not Public access or may replace it with Governmental access or may take away Public access altogether, depending on the disposition of the local government or its voters.
Municipalities have a broad spectrum of franchise agreements (a government-granted monopoly) with cable television service providers. Depending on the size of the community and their contractual agreement the PEG and LO channels may take many forms. Large communities often have a separate organization for each PEG type, smaller communities may have a single organization that manages all three. Because each organization will develop its own policies and procedures, constituent services differ greatly between communities.
Public-access television channels may be run by public grassroots groups or individuals, private non-profits or city organizations and policies and regulations are subject to their own ordinances and community standards.
Services available at public-access organizations are often low cost or free of charge, with an inclusive, content neutral, first-come, first-served, free speech ideology. Monies from cable franchise fees are hopefully used to operate the facilities, employ staff and trainers, develop curriculum, operate training workshops, schedule and maintain equipment, produce programming (live or pre-recorded), manage the cablecast of shows and publish promotion materials to build audiences. Funding and operating budgets vary significantly with the municipality's base cable subscriber volume so that organizations in densely populated areas may be able to offer different services than sparsely populated areas.
Users of public-access stations may participate at most levels of this structure to make content that is meaningful and reflective of their experience within their communities. Any member of a community may take advantage of public access. Users are not restricted to cable subscribers only. Many public-access channels carry primarily locally produced programs while others also carry regionally or nationally distributed programming. Public-access centers are not necessarily bound to traditional one-and-one-half hour block schedules, programs may be about 30 or 60 minutes but may also be of any length, depending on local organizational policies. In the event that a public-access channel becomes filled up with programming a franchise may state that more channels may be added to suffice the demand.
Public-access centers often allow members to sponsor programming that was produced outside of the municipality. A show that originates outside the municipality is often referred to as "bicycled" programming. Public-access centers also may solicit programming that may be valuable to the community despite its origination point.
Educational access is the institution set aside for fulfilling the needs of the educational departments and organizations within the municipality. Educational access channels may be associated with a specific school, school district or even private organization that is contracted to operate the access station for the city.
Educational access centers usually operate a cable channel on the local cable system and often include elements and principle that echo Public access in terms of training and resources. Many school media and video training programs are based in the educational access centers. Programming distributed by these centers ranges from student or parent produced media to coverage of local school functions and bodies (such as the School Council or Committee). There are a number of notable Educational access organizations that produce programming for a national audience and experiences a very broad distribution.
Government access television is a resource of the city to address local municipal programming needs. Often the city or town may use the G channel to cablecast city council meetings, election programming, local emergency announcements and other events and programs as valued by the local government.
PEG often struggles to balance freedom of speech with free, open access to the cable systems and as a result cable operators or PEG organizations have occasionally rightfully or wrongfully banned producers based on the impact of a specific program, or have removed programming from the schedule because it pushed the legal boundaries of pornography, sedition or slander.
Local governments are required to contract PEG work to city organizations or private non-profits and funding for these groups are often managed through the municipality. Franchise fees ultimately come from the local cable subscribers, paid to the city by the cable operator, and paid then to the PEG centers. Centers have been known to experience interruptions in contract negotiations by the local governments, late payment of contracted operating monies, or obstructive or restricting behavior from the municipalities in general.
PEG centers have also faced challenges from major marketshare cable giants who intend to squelch the single digit percentage of PEG funding that comes from their profit margins. As of 2006, Comcast, AT&T and Verizon are the largest marketshare companies in the United States and lobbied significant legislation through the US House of Representatives to reduce or end PEG funding.
Municipalities, local governments and even residents often confuse the difference between broadcast and cablecast television systems. PEG centers have been reported to the FCC about infractions that may apply to broadcast television, even though cable television content (including public access television) is not subject to the same rules. For example, Janet Jackson's appearance at the 2004 Super Bowl appeared on broadcast systems which spurred the FCC to threaten networks and their affiliates with additional fines for displaying indecency. The same goes for the Monday Night Football sketch which featured Nicollette Sheridan and Terrell Owens. Because cable television is a closed system with elective access there are fewer rules and restrictions about the same content.
PEG also faces technological challenges, often due to the poorly funded and stretched budget of their operation. Access centers are traditionally underfunded and understaffed and give rise to numerous complaints. Complaints range from the poor production quality of scheduled programming, poor scheduling and playback, programming playing late or not at all, or signal strength being so weak that the program becomes unviewable.
Many media reform and watchdog organizations have been formed to monitor and report on national and global media policy. Free Press, for example, is a "national, nonpartisan organization working to reform the media. Free Press monitors PEG access legislation at Defend Local Access.. Save Access, a watchdog organization focused on PEG, is not associated with any specific non-profit organization, nor does it receive any operating funds of any kind (either corporate, non-corporate or foundation related). Both organizations have been identified as respected sources.
The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is not public-access television and has no official connection with PEG. PBS is funded partly by government and tax resources, and partly by private grants and contributions. PEG is funded by cable television companies through subscription fees, and also by private grants and contributions. PBS does not regularly provide free use of facilities to produce programming.
Nevertheless, a PBS program called Mental Engineering started at SPNN, the public-access channel of Saint Paul, Minnesota, was picked up by KTCA, and had an episode broadcast across the U.S. after Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, which analyzed the advertisements from the game.
A famous fictional public-access program, Wayne's World, draws some comedy from the often stereotyped low production values of material distributed on public-access channels.
Elvira, Ari Louis and The Food Network's Bobby Flay all started out on public access. Comedian Tom Green got his start on a community channel, a similar but not wholly identical type of service in Canada.
In the book How to Talk Back to Your Television Set, Nicholas Johnson, FCC commissioner, 1966-1973, in part discusses prototype public-access.
The Philo Awards named after Philo Farnsworth is an annual public-access television competition where the winners receive notice for their efforts in various categories in producing community media.