Take a look at the excellent article on AOC in Tuesday morning's Advertiser. The story, AOC: Tune in, speak out, takes a look an institution we may take for granted but which would be deeply appreciated in most parts of the country. (Similarly, we probably ought to be more aware of what treasures KRVS and KBON are.)
I'd ask that you go read that article and think about it for a minute before returning to this post. (Don't joke me; you know this is just the sort of article you skip over in the newspaper.) It'd be helpful to have it fresh in your mind as you read on here.
AOC is a prime example of a public access television; as local viewers will know AOC shows air on cable channels 5 & 19 and carry a smorgasbord of locally originated shows. Popular shows range from call-in shows, to talking head panels, to cooking shows--some in French, some in English and some in whatever it is we talk around here. Space on the cable lineup is a part of the local franchise agreement, as is an amount of money (originally) dedicated to keeping AOC up and running.
Institutions like AOC serve as a bulwark to support free expression and local culture in an era of mass media that threatens to give us all the same accents and make us parrot the same opinions. Community TV varies tremendously in quality. I've lived in college towns across the country and AOC is the first Local Access Channel that I've ever watched regularly. It's head and shoulders above most. It's unfortunate that folks tend to compare AOC shows to slick, commercial shows that appear on the adjacent channels. Tune in, you might develop a taste for unvarnished, awkward, and genuine local content.
Local Access channels are valuable to communities--and endangered. Public Access is tied to local cable franchises and funding for them generally comes from the contract a cable company makes with a local government for the use of the public rights of way. The principle is that some portion of the media ought to be preserved for the public. A similar principle has always applied to the broadcast media. Killing the local franchise is the phone companies latest "big issue" at both state and national levels--they claim they need it to begin competing with the cable companies in offering their version of cable TV. As I've argued the their real purpose is to gain an advantage over cable companies by wiggling out of the local franchise requirements that a company doing cable TV business in town must offer the service to every citizen, not just to the most profitable parts of town.
But even if it isn't the purpose of the legislation, killing the local franchise will also put every local access channel at risk. If it is killed out-right the money and the access to the bandwidth dies. If, as most recent proposals suggest, this money is collected at the state (or federal!) level and remitted to localities it will come directly to the local government which will have to make a conscious decision to continue to support local access. The temptation to "appropriate" that cash, no longer earmarked in a local contract for support of the local channels will be overwhelming and the battle to keep it for its original purpose will be endless.
This isn't a merely theoretical concern and Lafayette's AOC is a case in point. In the last contract revision the money that had always been specifically allocated to AOC was instead handed directly over to Lafayette Consolidated Government with the understanding that it would now fund AOC. You'll not be surprised to learn that citizen free speech which displeased councilmen led to subtle and not so subtle threats to get rid of Acadiana Open Channel. That some councilmen don't like what citizens say--either in council meeting or on AOC--is not a reason to stop letting the public speak--at council meetings or on AOC. Indeed, it's proof that the comments sections of the council meetings and AOC are doing just exactly what we, and government officials, should want it to do: provide a forum for free speech, even if it is a bit bruising to the delicate constitution of our leaders.
But AOC, and other public access channels across the country, are more than irritations to local leaders who get a little too full of themselves. They are also disliked by some, not for what they are, but for what they remind us of: that not all media has to be commercial, that local interests are not necessarily best served by leaving every decision up to large national corporations and that some space for reflecting local values, local customs, and local cultures should be preserved. We here in Lafayette are well aware that if we want our local Cajun and Creole cultures to survive we'll have to do it ourselves--and in media that means we can't expect the national, commercial media to even notice we exist on any regular basis. (You'll not hear any Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes on Comedy Central. And Emeril Lagasse, sadly (1, 2), is the closest thing to regional cooking we're likely to see.)
If you listen around town you can hear the beginnings of a real vision for Lafayette: one that focuses on buzzwords like "Smart Growth," "The New Urbanism," "The Creative Class," "The Cultural Economy," "Fiber-Optic Bandwidth," "Diversity," "High Technology" and a renewed sense that we can only count on ourselves to secure our community's future. You can hear that vision coming together in speeches by the mayor, the topics list for the current Leadership Lafayette classes, articles in the newspapers, and invited speakers in yearly series. Something is coming together.
AOC has earned the right to be part of that picture. It's at the juncture of High Tech and The Creative Class -- it is one of the more credibly diverse institutions in the city, and is a mainstay in sustaining the cultural distinctiveness on which hopes for a culturally based economic segment rest. The director, Ed Bowie, and the board seem well aware that the coming death of the broadcast/cable model of TV means they have begun to prepare in rather obvious ways for a new universe in which to provide media access to the public. The podcast classes are a smart move and prepare for the day when video podcasts will be part of the mix of shows. AOC's reaching out to make a connection to LUS in anticipation of big in-system bandwidth is similarly forward-thinking.
Lafayette is lucky to have AOC. In the coming obscure battles over national and state video franchising we should be aware that we do have a dog in that fight. It's in everyone's interest that local franchising and local access stations survive. But it would especially benefit Lafayette in our unique situation.