Access denied 

Orange County loves cable television -- but only for itself, not for its citizens.

On Tuesday, Sept 1, at 3:30 p.m. in the county commission chambers, the county will stage a public hearing regarding its new, 61-page proposed cable television franchise ordinance. This is the law that demands decent service and a public benefit in exchange for allowing the area's cable television companies to lay wire along roads and other public rights of way.

The new law also would require cable companies to reserve two or three more channels for the county and for educational programming.

But access for actual citizens -- that is, in the "Wayne's World" sense of cable TV as an outlet for uncensored, grass-roots expression -- would continue to be denied, and for at least the next 10 years.

Keith Longmore, a Pine Hills resident, says that would be an injustice. "People ought to have access as a right," he says. "People need to participate electronically in their government."

Public access -- the channel that, in other cities, offers a forum for radical housewives and psychotic preachers and mad scientists and people who, apropos of nothing, get naked during interviews -- was born more than 30 years ago of the notion that, in exchange for use of the public rights of way in a monopoly setting, cable ought to give something back to the community.

And although "Wayne's World" wannabes dominate the spectrum, community media advocates also produce news and cultural programs of significance, some of which attract substantial viewership. Public access is free of government restrictions, and even restrictions imposed by the cable company. Only obscenity is forbidden.

Federal law says the local cable franchiser -- Orange County government, in our case -- may use some of the millions of dollars in franchise fees it extracts from the cable companies (there are five here, but the 400-pound gorilla is Time Warner) to fund a little suite of rooms with a few cameras and an editing machine and a control booth and some sound equipment for the public to use.

But the law doesn't distinguish between public access, educational access and government access, which are lumped together under the acronym PEG. Instead, the law leaves it up to local governments to negotiate with the service provider for any or all of them. In fact, most get nothing.

PEG exists in only 10 to 15 percent of cable franchises, according to the Alliance for Community Media, a Washington group that promotes citizens' use of cable. Orange County has never had public access.

What we do have, called Orange TV and found on cable channel 9, is produced by county government. It broadcasts county commission meetings, county job openings, propaganda about big capital projects and most-wanted lists for your viewing pleasure. "As an Orange TV viewer, you're already making a significant contribution to Orange County's ‘Citizens First' philosophy," the channel's website announces. "However, if you belong to a government-related organization or are involved in a government-sponsored activity, your information may be eligible to televise on Orange TV."

That's not enough for Longmore, who says he moved from Vermont a few months ago and settled in Pine Hills. "This area gets slammed in the press as being high crime," he says, "when other areas -- Azalea Park, for example -- have worse crime."

Longmore says he contacted some neighborhood groups about putting that information out on public access cable. "But the only way you and I could get on TV is to buy time," he says.

Longmore bounced around the county bureaucracy until he spoke to Jim Evans, the cable television regulatory enforcement coordinator, who he says told him, "We question whether it would be in the best interests of the public in general to require that channel capacity be designated by cable operators for public use."

Replies Evans: "He's got some of his facts incorrect." For example, Longmore claimed that Orange County is opposed to educational access. Actually, the draft ordinance calls for educational access. But the cable company argues that it's already providing it, under an agreement with Valencia Community College called Knowledge TV.

Indeed, cable television companies resist all attempts by counties to take channel capacity for public, educational or government access of any kind. And since the county wants three or four channels for itself and for "educational" purposes, asking for another channel for public access would be pushing the matter.

Besides, aside from Longmore, few if any Orange County residents seem to care or even realize they're missing out on an opportunity to be on TV.

"I've never had a public hearing where the public has actually commented," says Evans, who has been in his job three years and has run three hearings.

Public access advocates say that's how it goes. "What really makes a difference in so many communities is the awareness and dedication of a few people," says Lucy Griggs, program director for the Tampa Educational Cable Consortium and a member of the Alliance for Community Media. "An ally in the government who is involved in the negotiating process is invaluable."

No such ally has emerged in Orange County. But a turnout at Tuesday's meeting may change the equation.

More by Ericson, Edward Jr.


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