Friday, September 26, 2008

Do you need WYOU?

Mayor Dave would like to cut funding for Madison's public access television station, WYOU. As part of his proposed 2009 operating budget, the mayor would shift the money currently given to the station ($140,000) over to the Madison City Channel, which "broadcasts government meetings and civic events." This would apparently "spare the city from having to supplement City Channel's budget with property tax dollars" but, "The $140,000 makes up 80% of WYOU's budget, says Guy Swansbro, the station's interim director. Without it, 'It would all be over. It would certainly wipe us out.'"

Threats of having their budget axed come up quite often, so it's not entirely clear if this proposal will actually go through or not. But it brings up an interesting question: what value does a station like WYOU have? Is it worth continued public funding to maintain public stations? Especially in this era of cheaper and easier access to the internet, where anyone can upload videos and podcasts and the like, do communities still need public access television?

My initial response is yes, of course. The airwaves are publicly owned, and having at least one public access station is a vital part of maintaining locally oriented, non-commercial programming on the air. But the question of relevancy in the internet age got me to thinking a bit more about this. Couldn't WYOU just move online, offer its programming there? It might be cheaper, and have a wider reach.

But then, not everyone has internet access (or high-speed access). Heck, a lot of us are still trying to work out the switch from analogue to digital television receivers. Wouldn't it be a little presumptuous to assume that everyone could just log on for WYOU's local content? And beyond that, shouldn't we be fighting to maintain every scrap of public space that we can get?

WYOU has already been through the elimination of PEG funding from the Video Competition Act, and several channel moves courtesy of Charter. It's likely that, should this budget proposal pass, they'll be pretty much done for. They've started a petition drive to stop this from happening, and you can find it on their website if you're interested.

Little by little (and sometimes in big chunks), we seem to be losing the battle for non-commercial, public access media. Even when the economy isn't in the shitter, securing funding for public media is an uphill battle. For various reasons, it just doesn't seem to be a priority--or even a concern at all--for a lot of the folks who make those decisions. And cable companies often seem to be downright put out by their responsibility to make available those airwaves that have been entrusted to them.

I would argue that in spite of the hit-or-miss quality of programming, despite the internet, despite its overall viewership, public access does still matter. Perhaps WYOU and the budget would both be better served by having the station combine resources with the Madison City Channel, as Mayor Dave goes on to suggest, but that would need to be balanced by a much smaller cut to their budget than first proposed.

It might have also helped if legislators had taken out the part of the Video Competition Act that let cable companies off the hook from having to pay out fees to communities for use in supporting their public access channels. It's a little something called foresight. But then, this may also come down to people simply not giving a damn.

Which is a shame, because regardless of whether or not you make a regular habit of watching public access channels, I would argue that they're a vital part of any community. They're part of an essential, democratic net of public space, wherein everyday members of the community can air their opinions, their creative endeavors, their roasting meat, and more. Without them, those publicly owned airwaves become nothing more than corporate machines, with little hope of truly local content.


Anonymous said...

Your article leaves out the top reason WYOU is needed: education and facilitation.

YouTube is great for some purposes, but it doesn't teach the skill of editing, doesn't provide a studio space, and doesn't have cameras available for checkout.

What you see on YouTube usually reflects this, as most of the videos are low resolution versions of commercial productions (music videos, etc.) or one camera/one cut shorts (guy hurting himself on a skateboard or girl singing some pop song in front of a webcam).
Mayor Dave shared this lack of understanding when he mentioned YouTube and suggested WYOU can share a space with the long-overfed City Channel 12. Can CCTV be open for late productions? Does it have space for an editing lab? Camera checkout? Can WYOU use their studio as a classroom?
These questions weren't thought through when the initial suggestion was made... we'll see if Dave stands corrected.

PS- PEG funding is paid for by cable subscribers for the explicit purpose of Public and Government Access channels (Education is within the school district). If the City is under financial duress, shouldn't it be a problem for the $280,000(!) City Channel receives from the general fund before it effects PEG funding for Public Access?

Emily said...

Good points, and thanks for bringing them up.

Anonymous said...

PEG funding hasn't ended yet... it's just slated for demolition in 2011. This is partly why some felt it was insult to injury to yank the funds now, when its days are already limited.

Mayor Dave announced today that he will, indeed, back off of WYOU's PEG allocation for this year - but the expectation is to cut these funds in half for 2010. WYOU will fight that idea over the next year.

Anonymous said...

I dunno. I'm having a hard time justifying the existance of Wisconsin Public Radio and WYOU. Both for the same reason. Anything they have, I can get online. The programming on both is so hit and miss as to make it just unwatchable except when I know someone on the air.

WYOU may just be the Joy Cardin of television. You can stand it (and her) for about 15 minutes, but then you almost want to pay them to turn off the transmitter because it gives you such a headache.

The Lost Albatross