Written by Daniel Hazard
San Antonio's Channel 20 is back on the air, thanks in part to the Media Empowerment Project of the UCC's Office of Communication, Inc.
In January, TimeWarner Cable pulled the plug on San Antonio's public access station, due to a new loophole that no longer requires sole service providers to offer the programming.
When Texas Senate Bill 5 passed in the fall of 2005 - opening up the market for cable competition throughout the state - TimeWarner no longer felt obliged to provide public access in San Antonio. And Channel 20 was no more. Yet, even while new companies entered the San Antonio market, none felt obliged to offer public access broadcasting. The new state law was allowing media companies to skirt a service once required by the FCC.
Enter a cadre of concerned citizens, public access producers and the San Antonio office of the UCC-related Texas Media Empowerment Project (TMEP). Together, they started to educate and mobilize the community to respond.
"It was really heartbreaking to see over 180 producers losing their channel and this channel just going black," said DeAnne Cueller, TMEP's project director.
The UCC's Media Empowerment Project works to hold local media accountable to the needs of diverse communities. Besides San Antonio, it also is working on projects in Michigan and North Carolina.
In San Antonio, part of the project's role was to investigate the impact of Senate Bill 5 on the community. After TMEP gathered the information and took residents' concerns to city officials and Time- Warner, the corporation agreed on July 3 to put Channel 20 back on the air.
"It was awesome to have a faith-based entity like the UCC providing us with the encouragement and support we needed to get through a really difficult process," Cuellar said. "And also just to have that large constituency base of really great people that believe in the work of local community."
Although the law only affects cities in Texas, similar legislation is being considered at the federal level, and media advocates say the proposals use similar language that could potentially cut off local access media across the country. The legislation would clear the way for so-called "cherry picking," where media companies can choose whether or not to provide services, such as public access stations, in certain neighborhoods.
Low-income households are most affected by unfair media practices, advocates contend. Cable providers would no longer be required to offer equal service. In other words, if the media company doesn't want to connect cable in low-income neighborhoods, they won't have to - denying these low-income neighborhoods access to information.
Such "redlining" also was used by telephone conglomerates in the 1960s until the UCC's OC, Inc. stepped in. As a result, it is now illegal to exclude neighborhoods from telephone coverage.
Cuellar hopes that by sharing the story of San Antonio's media access struggle, other communities affected by proposed legislation will see that they can work together.
"Texas MEP is an outstanding example of community organizing from the inside out," said the Rev. Robert Chase, executive director of the UCC's OC, Inc. "Students, activists, artists and producers from the community itself recognized the local impact caused by Senate Bill Five and did something about it."
"It is easy to forget that the airwaves belong to the public," Chase said. "DeAnne and her colleagues made a clear and compelling case that the public interest was not served by this policy change. The city responded and returned Channel 20 to the air. It is a great victory."
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