Media Democracy

“Democratization of Media” is one of the catch phrases of the podcasting and video blogging movement. The idea that regular folks like us can report on the news from anywhere, sharing our take on world events with the masses, without passing through the gatekeepers who control the “mainstream media” (newspapers, television stations and radio dial) is powerful stuff. At least in the United States, we’ve had this ability for most of the existence of cable television and very few people ever bother to use it.
Cable access channels, those remote outposts of the cable guide where political and religious zealots seem to be the only voices of public opinion, are by definition available to the public for democratic access to mass audience. Depending on where you live, the masses vary in size, but the access is the same. You might need to jump through a few hoops to get your program aired, but the cable companies are required by the local authority to provide this access in exchange for access to various city rights of way for laying cable. In Des Moines, Iowa, for instance, you simply needed to fill out a form and coordinate a time to air your show. SCAN, the non-profit organization appointed by the City of Seattle, Washington, requires you to attend an orientation class about the procedures required for submission before submitting your show. In both cities, there are facilities and equipment available for creating the shows.
In most cases, if there are more people requesting air time than there are program slots available on any given public access channel, the city has a contract clause requiring the cable provider to free up an additional channel. Unfortunately, the cable company doesn’t automatically engage this clause at the point of channel saturation and the city probably won’t take action unless someone complains. Like many things in the local community, if you aren’t happy with the current state of cable access, its important to let elected officials like the mayor and city council know you aren’t happy. Unlike many of the complaints received by local politicians, cable access is something the local government has a great deal of leverage over because the bidding company is vying for a local monopoly.
Sure, cable access gets a bad rap for being lousy material, or too heavily skewed toward religious and political programming as I suggested above, but that doesn’t need to be the case. Nothing short of inertia is stopping you from hosting a local restaurant review program for your area, offering an alternative to the nightly news or broadcasting a competing alternative to ESPN’s X-Games. You have the same barriers to people finding your show on cable access as you do online, like no marketing budget, limited distribution and competition for people’s attention with alternative forms of entertainment.
I’m not suggesting that cable access is a replacement for Web delivery. I am suggesting cable access should be an important complement to Web delivery. The same people who complain about the quality of programming on television aren’t doing their part to make it better (me included). With a little careful planning, I’m willing to be a cross-over show from the Web could rate higher in the Nielsen’s than many of the primetime shows.