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Pushing for More Support for PEGs

ACT's Bunnie Riedel offers an update on pending legislation and the current priorities for public, educational and government channels

Supporting the health of Public, Educational and Government (PEG) programing is a key goal for American Community Television (ACT), a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of PEG access television stations across the country. PEG channels serve a role that no other television medium is providing, according to Bunnie Riedel, the executive director of ACT, who spoke with Government Video about the organization and the status of the Community Access Preservation Act, known as the CAP Act (S. 1244), which has been introduced in the Senate.

What is the goal of the American Community Television organization?

The goal is to educate and advocate for PEG access television. We spend most of our energy on Capitol Hill in the hope that we can get Congress to understand how important PEG access television is to our local communities.

Has the focus changed in the years since the group’s inception?

No, ACT was formed for one thing and one thing only: get the Community Access Preservation Act (CAP Act) passed. We think it’s critical to the survival of the PEG channels.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing PEG channels today?

There have always been funding challenges for PEG channels. Unlike Public Television, we receive no federal or state money to run our channels. Any money we get comes through the local franchise agreement and can only be used for capital and equipment. So if we need operational funds for salaries, we have to go back to local government and receive money from the general fund.

Between 2005 and 2008, Twenty-two states have passed statewide franchising legislation, which was pushed by AT&T, and 11 of those states eliminated all PEG funding. Which is why we are working for the CAP Act, to reverse that harm and other harms that resulted from statewide franchising legislation.

Why is it important for ACT to continue to provide a cohesive voice for these local community channels?

Because the PEG channels provide local information that no other television medium is providing like city and county council meetings, school board meetings, local nonprofit and educational programming, local religious programming, local candidate debates, and police and fire department programming. I’ll give you an example. Where I live in Howard County, Md., we have no local daily paper, and we have no local radio stations. So we are dependent on the Baltimore or D.C. media to cover our community. And frankly, the only time we get a mention is when something bad is happening.

Howard County PEG access television really is the reliable source for information in Howard County. It’s critical to democratic discourse here in Howard County and certainly important to disseminating local events and happenings as well as providing a free speech platform for all viewpoints.

There are many communities across this country where that is the story. If it weren’t for access television, there’d be little opportunity for people to know what’s going on. It’s very powerful to watch a county council meeting rather than be told through a newspaper article, for instance, what went on at that council meeting. You’re getting the information first hand, and that’s very powerful. I think PEG access is critical to our democracy.

What is the CAP Act and where do things stand with this legislation?

The CAP Act restores the ability of local government to get funding for their PEG channels and removes an important restriction on how those PEG funds can be used. Right now, communities can only use PEG funding for capital and equipment, we also want those PEG funds to be able to be used to hire people if need be. It’s great we can buy cameras but if we don’t have people to operate them, then what’s the use?

ACT Executive Director Bunnie Riedel

It also keeps PEG channels on the basic tier of service so that all cable subscribers can get them. Additionally it prevents cable operators from charging a local community to transmit the channels (something Charter does),provides a path for getting HD channels for PEG, and provides a path for having our programming listed on the electronic programming guide so people can find the shows they’re interested in.

It’s been introduced in the Senateby Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), and we are working on getting a Republican on the bill, so that our chance of getting it also introduced in the House will be better. I personally do a lot of walking and talking on Capitol Hill!

Does your organization attend NAB, and if so do you have any announcements planned or goals for that show?

We don’t attend NAB, but a lot of PEG people attend NAB. They love it! You can’t be in television and not love NAB! We do have a partnership with NAB on issues where we find agreement. For instance, the issue of keeping PEG and broadcasters on the basic tier of service is critical to both our organizations. I’ve enjoyed working with NAB and look forward to more opportunities to find common interests.

Are there any actions you’ve requested from any federal agencies, such as the Federal Communications Commission, that you are hoping will improve opportunities for PEG programming channels?

PEG channels right now most desperately need a legislative fix to what ails us. That’s not something that will come through the FCC. We certainly do weigh in on issues such as the Charter-Time Warner merger and we will be filing comments on diversity of programming, more as an educational effort with the FCC than anything else.

Does the organization have any specific goals over the next six to 12 months?

Yes! Get the CAP Act passed and short of that, get the CAP Act passed in the next legislative session. I’d ask your readers to please contact their Congressional offices and ask their Representatives and Senators to sign onto and support the Community Access Preservation Act (S.1244).