WE ARE IN a new age of news and media. It started with the 24 hour news cycle, it changed again with the advent of social media, and most recently our media landscape changed with the introduction of the term “fake news” into our vernacular.
For the first time, perhaps ever, we have foreign countries and domestic organizations interjecting false stories into our mainstream news, we have cable news stations taking a side rather than staying neutral, and we have citizens questioning what they see and read in the news. Now seems like the right time to be focused on preserving – and fighting for – our local cable access channels that have been serving our communities for so long.
Local cable access channels, also known as PEG channels (Public, Educational, Government) connect us to our community and provide transparent, unbiased coverage of local government.
PEG channels are your local cable access channels that provide local and statewide news coverage, air town and state public meetings – while also airing the local football games or school plays. Their role is not insignificant, yet they continue to be treated as such, while being discriminated against by big cable companies who refuse to give them fair and equal treatment.
PEG centers provide residents with access to electronic media to express their views, free from commercial or corporate restraints. The issues facing communities are openly expressed and addressed in a candid and transparent way on PEG channels. At a time where the mainstream media is constantly under attack, we should be preserving – and protecting – these channels that provide balanced and transparent local coverage.
Currently, these channels are not being broadcast in High Definition as all other channels are offered and their programming is omitted from the Electronic Programming Guide, despite the fact that the vast majority of them have the ability to do so. Without these abilities, our local access channels will not be able to compete and will ultimately be left behind.
After many failed attempts to negotiate with cable providers across the state to include these provisions, An Act to Support Community Access Television, was filed by state Sen. John Keenan as well as state Reps. Ruth Balser and Antonio Cabral. This bill seeks to ensure the future viability of our local stations by changing unfair limitations on PEG stations.
There are approximately 200 PEG centers across the state, the largest concentration of PEG Access centers in the country. And right now, these unfair, unequal practices are threatening their ability to survive.
The majority of the PEG centers are independent, non-profit media centers while the rest are a combination of stations that are municipally-run, college-run or located in other secondary schools. These centers operate almost entirely on federally mandated cable franchise fees. If cable providers are entitled to defer this cost back to the consumer, shouldn’t the consumer be afforded the best possible quality? Cable providers state that since Massachusetts is one of the few states that enjoys local cable franchising, that discussions about High Definition channels or access to Electronic Programming Guides should be negotiated at the time of local renegotiations. Yet, time after time, they refuse to even enter into a discussion.
While PEG stations strive for equality in broadcasting and programming guides, they are also working to ensure their independence and ability to provide fair and accurate coverage. Right now, in Massachusetts, that is not always the case for local cable and PEG channels. And all media outlets – no matter their size or stature – should have the ability to practice independently without oversight or risk of retribution from the government and organizations they are responsible for covering.
For some municipalities in Massachusetts, funding for PEG channels is appropriated by town meeting or counsel. While this is an inefficient way to run a system, it also potentially puts the ability to operate independently in jeopardy. No media outlet should have to request funding from the organization they are simultaneously tasked with covering, as it could potentially hinder their ability to be impartial and fair.
In a world where media production has become global, the community media center has stayed true to its local roots…all while continuing to embrace emerging technology to deliver quality content to citizens and viewers. These channels are a vital part of our local community, and they are vital to preserving the value of our independent media and what that means here in our country.
We have the opportunity – and responsibility – to protect our PEG channels in Massachusetts and preserve the vital role they play in our communities.
Melinda Garfield is the executive director of Westwood Media Center and president of MassAccess, a non-profit organization that serves and supports local access cable TV stations across Massachusetts.