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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Time to lay down the law on Channel 74?

Plainfield residents have not been well-served by their Public Access Channel in recent years.

That could begin to change tonight at the Cable TV Advisory Commission's meeting -- especially if members of the public come out. The meeting is at 6:30 PM this evening, in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Avenue.

Much of the programming has been recycling of old -- and sometimes VERY OLD -- material.

The only recent material appears to be a promo piece for the new boxing gym at East 5th and Roosevelt. Otherwise, the freshest programming is supplied by outsiders like the Union County Freeholders Forum.

When the Administration proposed an ILSA (interlocal services agreement) between the City and the PMUA recently for editorial and other help with getting the City's message out, City Administrator Dashield told the Council the agreement was necessary because of all the time it took the public information staff to edit tape for Channel 74 -- 12 hours of editing for one hour of tape, he said.

Well, if the staff was complying with the law (the Federal Cable and Telecommunications Acts of 1984, 1992 and 1996, to be exact), this wouldn't even be an issue. Which leads one to wonder if the staff even knows the law regarding Public Access Channels.


In the 1960s, as cable access was sweeping the country, cable companies strung their wires (coaxial cabling) literally everywhere -- using telephone and streetlight poles and draping them across streets, parking lots and other public spaces.

Eventually, communities wrung from the cable companies the right to have free access channels of three sorts -- Public Access, Educational, and Government, hence 'PEG' -- in exchange for running all that wire along the public right-of-way.

The laws cited above enshrine the responsibility of the cable operators to provide local communities with equipment and sometimes training to enable residents of the communities to produce their own programming and show it on their own local cable channel(s). And the local government is SPECIFICALLY BARRED FROM CONTROLLING OR EDITING THE CONTENT OF PUBLIC ACCESS PROGRAMMING. (The ONLY exception is that it can refuse to broadcast material deemed pornographic or slanderous.)

Plainfield has two channels granted in the current franchise agreement -- an Educational and a Public Access channel.

So, you might ask, why isn't Channel 74 being RUN as a Public Access Channel? And isn't it about time that it was?

When PCTV-74 was set up as a result of the most recent franchise agreement, Comcast provided grants for the purchase of thousands upon thousands of dollars of equipment for the station. This was of two sorts: equipment needed for the operation of the station, and equipment to be used by the public to produce content.

That included such items as videocameras, lighting equipment, editing software and copying facilities. All of which should be readily available to the public for its use. One problem is that we don't even know where the equipment is or whether all of the original equipment is still in place (there were rumors in the early days of the Robinson-Briggs administration that a good deal of the movable equipment had simply vanished).


I have heard rumors for months now that the Cable TV Advisory Commission feels hamstrung about getting anything going with Channel 74 for a couple of reasons --
  • that the Administration wants to control all decisions relating to management, production and broadcast scheduling; and
  • the staff complains of how long it takes to edit submitted tapes.
The truth of the matter is that the Administration should certainly not involve itself in matters the law reserves to the public -- specifically, what can be produced and the editing of community-produced material.

The Cable TV Advisory Commission is in the perfect spot to assert the public's rights and to begin to ensure that they are honored by the Administration.

How to get started?

  • Inventory the existing equipment and compare to the original equipment list, replacing anything needed;
  • Join the NJ public access channels user group (no need to re-invent the wheel when others have already don it);
  • Follow best practices in setting up a membership and training program (see links at end of post) so the public can begin to exercise its rights under the law;
  • Since the City's website is so unwieldy, the Cable TV Advisory Commission could set up its own BLOG (free and easy) and keep the public informed on a regularly-updated basis, without waiting for someone else to update the City website, and lastly
  • Once a membership and training procedure is in place, set up a public forum for all interested individuals and groups to let them know how things are moving forward and what THEY need to do.
A final word: The Cable TV Advisory Commission is, like ALL municipal boards and commissions, subject to both the 'Sunshine' law (Open Public Meetings Act) and OPRA (Open Public Records Act), meaning its meetings must be regularly scheduled and noticed and its records must be available to the public.

It can begin to establish that necessary bond of trust between the Public Access Channel and the community by --
  • Publishing its legally-required schedule of regular meetings;
  • Putting out its contact information so the public can make inquiries, and
  • Publishing its minutes (here is where a blog is perfect), so the public can see what progress is being made.
With these few simple steps, Plainfield could be on its way to having a truly world-class Public Access Channel and everyone could begin to take real pride in PCTV-74.

-- Dan Damon

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Anonymous said...

I hope you will provide all of this information and recommendations in a formal letter to the Mayor, Councilpeople and anyone connected with PCTV. The channel is nothing but an embarassment in its current form. What a missed opportunity for getting residents and students involved!

Anonymous said...


Regarding the comment "all the time it took the public information staff to edit tape for Channel 74 -- 12 hours of editing for one hour of tape, he said"--it depends on what is being done--certainly the events I have seen aired on the station don't seem to be that sophisticated.

That said, however, the fact is that residents are legally entitled to submit their own tapes to the station. When I was there, everyone who submitted material supplied me with a completed tape, ready to air.

The public's right to access is separate from the station's staff-produced programming. Even if we take them at their word--since the staff has been in place, one can divide the amount of staff hours by the amount fresh programming hours--even by their standards, they have taken literally HUNDREDS (dare I say THOUSANDS!) of hours since 2006 to create the 3-4 shows we have seen?? Is this cost-effective, given the amount of money that the administration has provided to this staff, none of whom seem to have any prior REAL media and/or public access experience? Hmm, maybe that's why it takes so long for them to edit simple stuff. If they would utilize the station in the true spirit of public access, they would have a corps of volunteers to edit and assist--but instead, they continue to run it illegally.

Also, regarding the following: "One problem is that we don't even know where the equipment is or whether all of the original equipment is still in place (there were rumors in the early days of the Robinson-Briggs administration that a good deal of the movable equipment had simply vanished)." When I was fired, I did a complete and comprehensive inventory of EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF EQUIPMENT owned by the station--the equipment inventory list that preceded me as well as the list of equipment I purchased while there. I provided a copy of this list to the city's purchasing agent, who went through every item with me on the day I left. I have a copy of the original inventory list--if anything is missing, I will know. I can offer this list to anyone who wants to do a public inventory. If something is missing, or has been stolen, we should know under whose watch it happened.


Anonymous said...


Regarding "pornographic" or "slanderous" material--the station's contracts indemnify the city against lawsuits for slander--the program's producer assumes all responsibility for content; likewise, "pornography" is a vague term--with cable, you are paying for the service, so you are, in effect, "inviting" the programs into your home--check the FCC rules governing public access cable. So, if a community producer submits a show with nudity or violence and profanity, the city CANNOT make the determination in advance that the show is unsuitable, nor can they refuse to air it--it is not the city's call. If a citizen makes a complaint AFTER seeing a show he or she deems objectionable, they need to contact Comcast to make a complaint. While I was at the station, there were some show submissions that had some profanity, and some which I am sure would have offended religious groups--however, the first amendment guarantees the right to say what you want. The producers who submitted possibly controversial programming while I was at the station usually had their own disclaimers about their show's content.

Also, regarding the administration attempting to govern the air times of shows--if this is tru, it is also illegal. The shows submitted must be offered airtime on a first come, first serve basis--there is a hierarchy, in terms of Plainfield residents, New Jersey residents, etc.

Anonymous said...

Additional Step:

Advise Police of any thiefs. Criminal Action is wrong no matter how high up it may go.