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Pappas: Public Access

The first time I taped the public affairs show that I host on Central Vermont Television, I was certain no one would ever see it. I had recognized the value of public access television, or PEG, as an easy portal for community building. But the voyeuristic approach of gavel-to-gavel public meetings, or even my own “talking heads” show, seemed a bit unexciting.

Let's just say I had doubts.

On that first show, I interviewed Barre's city manager. We sat in overstuffed chairs against a blue screen in the C-V-T-V studio, looking very Alistair Cooke-like in our seriousness. We talked about the upcoming budget vote. No one remembers that discussion.

Instead, the number of people who asked me whether I was sinking into my chair was both hilarious and astounding. From that point forward, I had new respect for PEG.

The 25 PEG stations around Vermont provide an outlet for citizens and organizations to produce non-commercial programming. They produced about 16-thousand hours of local programming in 2014. Broadcasting them one after another would take six-hundred-and-seventy-five days to watch.

We have PEG because of the feds.

PEG access became a mainstay of cable television when Congress passed the Cable Communications Act of 1984. As a result, nearly all of our PEG stations receive support directly from cable customers who pay a monthly fee in their cable bill.

Per the FCC, though, the cable operators are not allowed to control content, which means PEG stations among the last places where we can view “community” in its purist form.

This is not just about keeping municipalities transparent and accountable by broadcasting public meetings. It's about partnerships, education, understanding, diversity, democracy and social integration. It's a glimpse into the hearts of our towns and cities.

But PEG access is being threatened.

According to the state’s own Telecommunications Plan, the number of cable subscribers in Vermont has decreased over the past few years. Consumers are increasingly turning to other sources of content like Hulu and Netflix.

The revenue model for cable television companies has changed with “bundled” services. By doing so, cable companies now make an increasing percentage of their income from broadband and the Internet — not from cable.

There’s no way we can reverse the trend of cable giants in their corporate push to the top, but each of us can show our support — volunteer, donate and, most importantly, watch — the shows being produced by PEG stations. By doing so, we're really saying our communities come first.

Steven Pappas is Editor of the Times-Argus in Barre Vermont.
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