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New local public access channel coming to region

by Lauren Bala


A new cable TV channel is now ready and waiting for Centre Region citizens to step up and put it to good use.


The Centre County municipalities that make up the Centre Area Cable Consortium are in the midst of renewing their cable franchise agreement with Comcast, which includes a new cable channel that can be used for and by the residents of the region.


The agreement, which goes into effect Feb. 17, 2009, will cover State College and Bellefonte boroughs and College, Ferguson, Harris, Halfmoon, Patton and Benner townships. State College Borough Council approved the agreement Aug. 4.


The 10-year deal, which includes an automatic five-year renewal, calls for the creation of a third public, educational and governmental channel and empowers the CACC to determine its use. The region already has a governmental channel and an educational channel (Channels 7 and 98, respectively), which are run by CNET.


CNET Executive Director Cynthia Hahn said a lot of the decision about the use of the new PEG channel is up to the community.


What happens to the channel is dictated by what the community wants it to be,” Hahn said. “Community members need to step forward and volunteer their time. The CACC then needs to approve it.”


Negotiating a local public access channel bucks a national trend toward statewide franchise agreements. Under such agreements, municipalities have less opportunity to keep or gain public access channels, a right guaranteed by the federal Cable Communications Act of 1984. Cable companies, after all, would prefer to retain those channels for more profitable purposes.


In the past, many communities have not actively pursued public access, said Deb Vinsel, interim executive director of the Alliance for Community Media, a 30-year-old national public access advocacy organization that, two years ago, helped to defeat statewide cable franchise legislation sponsored by Verizon.


If a community doesn’t bring it up during a franchise renewal, the cable company won’t bring it up, either,” Vinsel said. “It’s not something that provides revenue, so they don’t have any reason to.”


Common material for public access channels includes interviews, speeches, community gatherings and performances. Airtime is doled out on a content-neutral, first-come, first-served basis.


In Centre County, getting the public access channel was as simple as the CACC bringing it up in negotiations after community members requested as much from elected officials at town meetings, explained Harris Township Manager Amy Farkas, a member of the CACC technical committee during the preliminary negotiations. But it’s only the first step in establishing a public access channel.


One condition for the third channel is that the existing two PEG channels fill 60 percent of prime-time viewing hours with locally produced programs for six consecutive months. Hahn told Voices that CNET is very close to meeting that requirement. The agreement also states that Comcast will provide the CACC with two installments of a $240,000 capital grant. The funds can be put toward the creation of a public access channel but are not designated specifically for that purpose, and cannot be used to cover operating expenses.


But the CACC is still unsure about what to do with the channel.


Since the public access channel is so hypothetical at this point, decisions haven’t been made about funding or management,” Hahn said.


This may mean they will choose to have another education or government channel,” she said. “Since it’s essentially a 15-year agreement, a public access channel can be activated at any point after Feb. 19.”


The agreement does not assign responsibility to anyone for programming. Members of the public can decide.


(CACC) board members would be looking for people who are organized and able to protect the municipality from inappropriate material,” Farkas said.


But what is inappropriate?


Under the 1984 Cable Communications Act, obscenity is punishable by up to $10,000 in fines and prison time. Obscenity is defined by “community standards,” as described in a 1957 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Other laws related to the act address libel, slander, invasion of privacy and false advertising.


Radnor Studio 21 in Wayne, Pa., is an example of what can happen when members of the community get organized. The station wasn’t in full swing until 12 years after the channel was established in a franchise agreement with what was then Adelphia and is now Comcast.


Although Adelphia originally provided a manager, the channel was soon turned over, with cable company funding, to the nonprofit Radnor Station 21. The station is run almost exclusively by volunteers. General Manager George Strimel, one of two paid members of the staff, said he established the station by finding volunteers interested enough to form the nonprofit, procuring additional funding and maintaining both over time.


We find volunteers by working with local newspapers, and since there are a lot of schools around, we can offer internships,” Strimel explained. “We have a lot of ways to get funding. We get government funding, businesses fund us, we get donations and have fundraisers. Funding is still ever the problem. Since the channel is part of the cable company, people at home are comparing you to big networks, and you need the funding to be able to compete.”


Strimel uses the funds for equipment and classes on how to utilize it, both of which are free to anyone who wants to produce a program.


The station is truly open,” Strimel said. “We show children’s programs, government reports, safety videos, business news, gardening shows and a program for the local Unidentified Flying Objects Club. We want to bring people in, not keep them out.”


Residents interested in helping to develop the Centre Region’s new public access channel can call (814) 234-7110 for more information.


To learn more about public access television, go to the Alliance for Community Media Web site at

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