Saturday, August 26, 2006

Public Access TV is not government media

(Published in The Gray News 8/25/06)

When they’re not purging people they don’t like from town committees, town councilors Foster, Upham, and Crane like to satisfy their authoritarian instincts by dictating what you see on television. The trio are the principal movers behind an effort to show less of them and more of the Gray Planning Board on Community Access Television.

The Three view the Planning Board as petty bureaucrats who want to over-regulate real estate developers. They recently took away the Board’s ability to impose fire protection standards on housing developments. Local developers are pleased. The Fire Department is not. Call it part of this council’s aggressive new No Developer Left Behind Act.

Not content with limiting their authority, the councilors now want the twice-monthly planning board meetings to be televised, presumably to allow the public to keep a close eye on this dangerous band of regulatory zealots. Generously, the council will inform the Gray Cable TV Committee that they can compensate for the increased workload by eliminating two monthly council workshops from the GCTV broadcast schedule, where the councilors evidently think public scrutiny is less needed. That worked out well, huh?

Let me just say that if it was up to me, GCTV would broadcast every committee meeting in Gray. I’d televise the breakfast counter at Cole Farms if I could, given how much public business has been conducted there in the last year. The problem is that there aren’t enough people to do it all. With three regular members and two part-time students, the cable committee is severely shorthanded. This shortage was recently made worse, when these same three councilors decided not to renew my own GCTV membership. First time such a thing ever happened. They didn’t say why. I think I’m being punished.

In any case there is no policy governing which town committee gets air time on GCTV. The GCTV policy manual states that “All programming will be of community interest as determined by the Cable Committee.” Content decisions are based on a combination of public input and editorial judgment. Most communities make programming decisions the same way. In fact, its pretty much the same approach used by all media. Elected leaders tend to stay away from programming specifics because their actions might be viewed as…political.

In Gray, regular council meetings have always been carried on cable. Public interest prompted the addition of council workshops to the broadcast schedule last fall, after councilors began holding workshops in record numbers and re-designated some as regular decision-making meetings. Your council now finds all the extra attention annoying, and want to shift the spotlight onto somebody else - preferably a committee with whom they strongly disagree.

For myself, I think its much more important to scrutinize executive decisionmakers who are more powerful than ever and act in ways that affects us all, over a regulatory board that is less powerful than ever and affects only a single land user at a time. In a perfect world, we would televise both, of course. But thanks in part to the vindictiveness of three axe-grinding demagogues, the citizens of Gray don’t have that option.

The last people in the world who should be determining what you see on public access television is a town council – any town council -- but especially one that is as secretive and divisive as this one. If you don’t believe that’s true, just check out the video. While you still can.

-Paul Proudian