REASSESSING PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR PUBLIC ACCESS CABLEVISION: A FADED
During the early 1970s, the federal government encouraged the provision of
local cable origination, including public access channels (FCC, 1972). At its
peak, public access cablevision was found in a sixth of cable systems, located
primarily in urban and university settings. Nationally syndicated surveys
suggest that these channels are viewed by 16% of the audience on a weekly
cumulative basis (Atkin & LaRose, 1991).
Since that time, however, public access has been plagued with controversy,
particularly concerning portrayals of indecency/ obscenity and political
extremism (Atkin, 1989; Dorothy, 1994; Lipton, 1992; Roberts, 1994; Zogolin,
1993). As a result, cable systems are increasingly reluctant to carry such
channels, especially since government pressure to offer access began to wane in
the 1980s (e.g., P.L. 98-543, 1984). In addition to the image problems they
present to cable operators, public access channels represent rather costly
investments that yield relatively low returns in terms of revenue and viewership
(e.g., Auferheide, 1992).
This, combined with the increased pressure to devote channel space to
hundreds of emerging channels--including lucrative pay-per-view
offerings--leaves cable operators little incentive to carry access. Thus, after
decades of political wrangling over mandated carriage and content regulations,
the major question confronting access is whether it will be allowed to exist.
In order to assess public support for access, the present study reports data
from a major market served by public, government and educational (P.E.G.) access
channels. Specifically, we assess audience awareness, interest, viewership and
satisfaction with local access news and information fare. We adopt a somewhat
broader definition of "community channels", which includes traditional P.E.G. as
well as leased access fare.
The various and several access controversies, in conjunction with its
marginal audience success, has prompted several communities to reconsider their
commitment to access programming. After the Supreme Court removed Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) mandates for access cable channels (Midwest
Video II, 1979), Congress required cable operators to devote a portion of their
channel space (typically 10%) for "community access" channels. These channels
differ from public access in that they're made available on a leased basis.
Absent these mandates, communities can request the provision of PEG access,
but channel carriage remains a matter of negotiation. Insofar as cable
operators are hesitant to carry public access channels (Baldwin & McVoy, 1988),
access patrons must provide a strict accounting of materials used for community
news and entertainment programming. As a consequence, these largely non-profit
programmers must now adhere to the very commercial criteria that access was
designed to offset (Atkin & LaRose, 1991; Engleman, 1990). Access users are
responding by improving production techniques and audience analyses, hoping to
provide marketplace justification for their electronic forum.
As Schmidt (1976, p. 56) notes, social movements favoring community channels
can be traced to the late 1960's, when "criticism of mass media was reaching a
crescendo and cable television was being viewed as a panacea for the ills of the
media and even of society." Such channels were intended to provide access to a
telecast medium which is structurally characterized by a scarcity of outlets
(for broadcast sources) and monopolistic ownership (for 98% of cable city
As commentators (Korte & Reagan, 1977; Owen et al., 1975) note, low
viewership levels attributed to access during the 1970s sparked a conflict
between the citizen's rights to access and the cable owner's right to earn a
profit. During this period of intensive research on access, Bretz (1975) found
that .2% of all viewing in Columbus, Indiana involved public access. A similar
Warner Amex survey found that .7% of all viewing involved public access in its
now defunct Columbus, Ohio Qube system (Advocat, 1984). Atkin and LaRose
(1991a) found that nearly 60% of homes in the U.S. were passed by at least one
community channel, although only a quarter had watched regularly and reported
that they were "satisfied" with their quality.
Access programmers counter that cable systems have a vested interest in
underestimating PEG channel use, owing to the expense and opportunity cost
factors outlined above. Past studies suggest that access channels garner
anywhere from a quarter to half of the local cable audience (Advocat, 1984;
Korte & Reagan, 1977). Porter and Banks (1988) found that 51% of TV viewers in
Milwaukee were aware of public access; of them, 64% reported that they never
watch it. The authors found that public awareness of public access increases
over time, as the public sees these channels as being highly accessible.
Assessing the content of that marketplace, Wurtzel (1975) classified public
access programming into the following categories: news, public affairs,
religious, instructional, sports, political, children's, experimental art,
entertainment and informational; the latter two categories accounted for 80% of
all programming studied. Doty (1975) found 95% of all public access programming
involved one of two formats: (1) what television jargon calls "talking heads"
(news, interviewers) and (2) videotapes of "real events" (p. 37).
Given this emphasis on low-cost community-oriented fare,
access programmers have faced challenges in promoting specific programs.
Johnson and Agostino (1975) found that, among those who've watched access
programming in Columbus, IN, 58% rely on newspapers for their program
information; others happen on to it while changing channels (27%) or get
information from friends (20%). People who watched such programming felt that
its major shortcoming was picture quality. Those who thought "the sound quality
good, the general educational value high and the creativity high tended to be
heavier users" (p. 5).
Where academic studies such as these provide a clear under-standing of
community channel performance within individual communities at a given point in
time, our understanding of channel performance in recent years remains
incomplete. Most of the research in this area was conducted at a time when 30%
or fewer of U.S. TV households subscribed to cable. Clearly, changes in
competing cable services, video technologies and channel carriage policies
underscore the need to re-examine channel performance.
The same is true with regard to geography. For instance, many of the
communities studied represent college towns and major urban areas. As Schmidt
(1976) notes, it is logical to expect that viewership of PEG channels would be
higher in those types of systems, as they're not representative of the country
as a whole; samples taken from university towns are likely to rank well above
the national average with regard to such factors as income and education (see
Krugman, 1985). Clearly, larger and more diversified samples would give us
greater confidence in the generalizability of research findings.
While nonacademic studies provide information across a wider geographic
scope, discrepancies in viewing estimates between cable system operators and
access programmers undermine those findings. This study was undertaken to
patronage of community channels, utilizing a probability
sample of cable viewers from a richly diverse urban market. Understanding
In attempting to build a theory of general cable viewership, researchers
have drawn perspectives from diffusion theory (Jacobs, 1995; LaRose & Atkin,
1988a,b; 1991; Rogers, 1995; Sparkes & Kang, 1986). This research has not,
however, provided a conceptual framework to explain access viewing. Given the
public affairs orientation of these channels, it is likely that viewers are
similar in background to users of other public affairs media. In assessing this
viewer profile among print media, Katz and Lazersfeld (1955) addressed a range
of issues related to the larger issue of opinion leadership. This perspective
was later refined to investigate the linkage between newspaper use and community
ties (Stamm, 1985).
Of particular interest here, those authors noted that older users with
grown children had a wide circle of contacts and knew more about community or
public affairs. In this regard, those higher in the life-cycle were thought to
be more knowledgeable about local issues and make greater use of public affairs
media. We would expect this to be the case with PEG media, as viewers would
likely be older and, as a function of that age, have smaller families. Katz and
Lazersfeld also expected that women would be less interested public affairs
patrons, owing to their traditional lack of access to public government. We
regard this prediction as an artifact of that time, and expect to find no gender
differences in PEG use.
In terms of other background attributes, researchers working from the
knowledge gap perspective suggest that high income and better educated viewers
tend to be heavier users of newspapers and better informed in public affairs
(Tichenor, Donohue, & Olien, 1980). LaRose and Atkin (1991) found that, while
better educated, heavy access viewers are nevertheless likely to be older,
retired and have lower incomes. They concluded that access presents an
alternative to people in a lifestyle and socioeconomic phase where opportunities
and alternatives for public affairs participation are few (in terms of mobility
and money). Based on that work, we would expect that heavier viewers of access
will fit the upscale profile of other public affairs media users. More
H1: Viewership of community channels will be positively related
to education level.
Focusing on use of other media, newspaper readership has been related to
cable subscribership in several studies (Grotta & Newsom, 1983; Rothe, Harvey &
Michael, 1983; Becker, Dunwoody, & Rafaeli, 1983; LaRose & Atkin, 1988a,b). Thus
news junkies on one medium are likely to be heavier users of another medium
(Jeffres, 1978). This media saturation may be conditioned upon content,
however, as Finnegan et al. (1991) found that cable subscription was unrelated
to readership of newspapers. Based on those expectations, we expect that
H2: Access viewership will be related to use of functionally similar
news and information media (e.g., newspapers).
H3: Access viewership will be related to use of functionally similar
news and information channels (e.g., SCOLA, PBS).
Although access viewership is likely to be related to time spent with
comparable TV channels, usage patterns for different media may simply be
unrelated, or otherwise competitive. Even so, Henke and Donohue (1989) note
that the introduction of a new electronic medium tends to cause a reorganization
in the way consumers view established media. For instance, Childers and Krugman
(1987) noted that electronic media compete for consumer dollars, audience time
and product offerings. Since the impact of other media is unclear in this
context, we pose the following research question:
RQ1: What types of programs are viewers watching on access
RQ2: How is viewership of access channels related to use of other media?
Focusing on cable use, Reagan (1981) investigated the effect of various
measures of community involvement on access use. He suggested a "closed-loop"
theory of access viewership, whereby those actively involved in community
organizations (e.g., community access groups) are also those who would be most
interested in watching access fare. In accord with that rationale, drawing from
Tichenor et al.'s work, we would expect that those with the most extensive
community ties would show the greatest interest in viewing. To the extent that
community ties deepen with time spend in a community, we might also expect that
viewership of access would be greater among those who have spend more time in
the local community.
Quality of life
Such community integration could be linked to one's perception of "quality
of life". As Neuendorf et al. (1998) note, this construct that may help explain
adoption and use of media channels in several different domains. Simply put,
"QOL" assessments represent people's assessments of well-being (Andrews, 1980),
and may correspond to generalized states of pessimism or optimism about "how
things are going in one's life." Recent research (---, 1996) has identified QOL
as an important predictor of media choice. In summarizing which domains of life
contribute most to global QOL measurements, Campbell (1981) examined people's
assessments of the quality of life available in the larger environment, e.g.,
neighborhoods, communities, nations, as well as personal assessments of their
family, home, friends, job and health (Campbell, 1981, p. 159). Given that QOL
items have been related to media use, we pose the following question:
RQ3: How does access viewership relate to QOL attitudes and
A telephone survey utilizing a computer-aided telephone survey sample
interview (CATI) system was conducted for data collection during the Fall of
1997. The survey used a list of random numbers of cable subscribers generated
by the local cable system. It was conducted in an ethnically diverse
metropolitan area of the Midwest, with a population base above one million. The
survey was conducted during the fall of 1997, yielding a sample of 319
respondents using a computer-aided (CATI) system. The questionnaire
tapped nearly 80 indicators of cable channel viewership, including PEG
viewership, media habits, general attitudes, and social locators.
Cable channel viewership
Respondents were asked to report their frequency of viewing for 34 channels
and channel categories available on the city cable system, on a 0-5 scale where
0=never watch and 5=several times a day. (The 34 are listed in the order of
questionnaire presentation in Table 4.) In separate items, respondents were
asked if they ever watch anything on the system's several access channels
(yes/no), and were asked to name up to three programs they have watched on the
access channels. On the basis of this open-ended probe, responses were coded to
create two dummy variables for the most frequently mentioned program
types--Viewership of sports events on PEG (yes/no) and Viewership of government
programming on PEG (yes/no).
Respondents were also asked how they learned that the programming was on the
access channels, with five closed-ended responses available: just came across
them while channel surfing/running through channels, saw something in a cable TV
guide, learned about it from someone else--interpersonal communication, other,
and a combination.
Other media exposure
Other media exposure patterns were tapped using commonly-accepted measures:
the number of hours they spend daily watching TV on average, the number of TV
viewing hours yesterday, the number of hours they spent yesterday listening to
the radio, the number of days last week that they read a newspaper, the number
of magazines they read regularly, the number of films seen in a theater in the
past month, and the number of videos viewed in the last month.
A number of attitudinal constructs were assessed using 11-point Likert-type
items. Sports involvement was tapped with the item, "When I watch sports events
on TV, I often get excited and act like I was at the game itself." Perceptions
of improving city conditions were measured with three items: "[The city's]
image has improved a lot in recent years," "My neighborhood is getting better,"
and "[City] schools will improve when the mayor's office takes charge." Life
orientation was measured with: "The most important thing in my life is my job,
my career," and "The most important thing in my life is my family." Comfort
with new technologies was assessed via: "Trying to get new technologies to work
is often frustrating," and "VCRs, cable TV boxes and TV remotes are too
complicated to use today." And, quality-of-life (Andrews, 1980) was measured at
two levels: "On a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being the worst place to live and
10 being the best place to live, where would you rank the [city] area?" and "How
would you rank the neighborhood you live in?"
Standard social locators were measured: Age in years, number of years of
city residence, level of education, income, racial/ethnic identity, marital
status, and gender. For the last three of these, dummy codes were developed:
Nonwhite (vs. white) racial/ethnic affiliation, Married status, and Female
The items relevant to PEG viewership and other cable channel viewership were
examined with simple frequencies analysis. The 34 cable channel items, plus the
three PEG viewership variables (general PEG viewership, PEG-sports viewing, and
PEG-government viewing), were submitted to principal components factor analysis,
with oblique rotation due to the likelihood of meaningful correlated factors.
The 11-factor solution resulting from the default latent root criterion
positioned all three PEG viewership variables in a single factor. In order to
more fully understand cross-channel patterns, a more stringent criterion of
mineigen=2.0, based on a scree inspection of the 11-factor solution, was used
for a second factor analysis. Zero-order correlational analyses were used to
look at relationships between PEG viewership and other cable channel viewership,
other media exposure levels, selected attitudes, and social locators.
The 319 respondents are representative of city cable subscribers--40% are
nonwhite, the median income is $30,0001-$40,000, the median educational level is
some college, and the median age is 40. Forty percent of the respondents are
married, and 58% are female.
Over a third of respondents (36.7%) report having watched PEG channels at
some time. Those 117 individuals gave a total of 176 mentions of particular
programming content that they have watched. Per RQ1's query on access viewing
tastes, Table 1 presents a breakdown of the 176 open-ended responses.
Identifiable PEG shows mentioned tend to fall into one of two categories: (1)
government activities (e.g., city council meetings, debates) or (2) sports
events (e.g., high school football, basketball, wrestling). Over 60% of
responses fall into these groups, despite a wide variety of other types of PEG
programming available. Of these 176 mentions of PEG programs, only 17 are
specific show titles. None matches precise titles listed in city programming
PEG viewing does not seem to be stimulated by active information-seeking on
the part of potential viewers. As shown in Table 2, over 60% of PEG viewers
report that they became aware of program options while channel surfing. Sixteen
percent found a listing in a cable guide, while only 8.5% heard about PEG
programming by word of mouth.
Table 3 displays the results of the first oblique factor analysis, which
produced 11 factors. Loadings (from the pattern matrix) and communalities are
shown in the body of the table, with eigenvalues and factor variances shown at
the bottom. Intercorrelations among the 11 factors are available in Appendix A.
The three PEG viewership items load together on Factor 5, following factors that
could be described as: F1--Basic cable/non-broadcast, F2--No kids, F3--Nesting,
F4--Information avoidance. Factors that are derived following the PEG factor
are: F6--Avoidance of channels that demand involvement, F7--International
information avoidance, F8--Broadcast, F9--Youth culture avoidance,
F10--Education, and F11--Country. The 11 factors capture 57.8% of the total
37-item variance pool.
Table 4 presents a number of sets of results for each of the 37 cable
channel viewership items. Descriptive statistics in the first two columns
indicate (1) the percentage of respondents who report ever watching the channel,
and (2) the mean frequency of viewing of the channel, on the 0-5 scale.
Zero-order correlations are shown in the third through fifth columns, indicating
the strength of linear relationships with PEG, PEG-sports, and PEG-government
viewing. Finally, factor loadings and communalities are displayed for the
forced, 3-factor solution.
As can be seen in Table 4, the PEG viewership rate matches or exceeds
viewership of ten of the 34 other cable channel options in the survey. That is,
more respondents report watching PEG than report watching: SCOLA,
Telemundo/Univision, Religious channels, Shopping network channels, the Food
Channel, HGTV, the Health Network, Pay-per-view offerings, and Court TV.
Bravo's audience is just barely larger than the audience for PEG channels.
Interestingly, it is many of these same seldom-viewed channels that hold
viewership relationships with general PEG viewing. The correlations in Table 4
show that some of PEG viewership's strongest associations are with low-audience
channels, and the 3-factor solution places PEG programming (and PEG-government
programming) in the company of many of the channels with the smallest audiences:
SCOLA, Religious channels, Shopping network channels, Bravo, the Food Channel,
HGTV, the Health Network, Telemundo/Univision, and Court TV.
Indeed, the first factor in the 3-factor solution seems to be one of
attraction toward content "off the beaten path"--channels with relatively small
audiences. The second and third factors might be labeled "Non-youth culture"
and "Non-basic cable," respectively. The correlations among the three factors
are displayed in Appendix A. While this 3-factor analysis illuminates the locus
of PEG viewership with respect to viewership of other channels, the analysis
overall is unsatisfying, with weak communalities and eigenvalues.
Table 4 identifies patterns of cable channel viewership associated with PEG,
PEG-sports, and PEG-government viewing, but in the analyses shown in Table 5, we
are generally unable to identify many other significant discriminators of PEG
viewers. Table 5 shows the results of correlational analyses with 24 media
exposure, attitudinal, and social locator variables. The number of significant
linear relationships is not much greater than what would be expected by chance.
This fails to support our expectation of an upscale (H1), public-affairs
media-oriented (H2) access viewer, as our analyses identify few of the
demographic or attitudinal correlates queried in RQs 2 and 3.
Although the significant relationships with PEG viewership and PBS as well as
SCOLA provide some support for H3, the repertoire of related channels is rather
wider than anticipated.
Probing more deeply into the viewership patterns in Table 5, PEG viewers are
more likely to report that the city's image has improved in recent years (8.7 on
a 1-10 scale, versus 8.1 for non-viewers; F (1,311)=6.32, p=.01). Race is
significantly related to PEG viewership--PEG programming is reportedly watched
by 31.4% of White respondents, 28.6% of Hispanic respondents, and fully 47.4% of
Black respondents (X2=9.09, p=.03).
PEG-sports viewers are more avid video viewers than are nonviewers of such
fare, as they've watched 3.9 videos in the last month, compared with 3.0 videos,
respectively (F(1,314)=4.51, p=.03). PEG-sports viewers are also more
optimistic about the future of city schools (4.3 vs. 3.5 on a 0-10 scale; F
(1,291)-4.93, p=.03). They are younger on average (36.9 years vs. 43.8 years
for nonviewers; F(1,311)=5.17, p=.02), although this negative relationship is
not perfectly linear (X2=21.4, p=.002). Crosstabular analysis reveals that the
heaviest viewing group is teenagers (34.6%), followed by forty-somethings (20.8%
watch PEG-sports) and respondents in their 50's (17.5%). Respondents in their
20's (9.8% are PEG-sports viewers) and 30's (8.8%) are lighter viewers, while
people in their 60's (3.4%) and over 70 (2.8%) rarely watch PEG-sports.
PEG-sports viewers are more likely to be male than female (17.2% of males watch,
vs. 9.7% of females; X2=3.83, p=.05).
As for government affairs viewership, we see the expected positive
relationship with newspaper reading, although this association was not strong
enough to push the overall correlation with PEG to the level of significance.
PEG-government viewers read the newspaper an average of 5.0 hours per week,
compared with the non-viewer average of 4.0 days per week (F(1,314=4.74, p=.03).
On average, PEG-government viewers have lived in the city for a longer period of
time (41.0 years vs. 31.7 years, respectively; F(1,317)=8.43, p=.004).
Study findings provide little support for the notion that access viewers
would fit the upscale information-seeker profile typical of other public affairs
consumers. In that regard, we fail to confirm the educated access user profile
noted by Atkin and LaRose (1991a), although they, too, found little other
evidence of a general "upscale" access user type. These
"nonfindings" concerning the inability of demographics to distinguish access
users is intriguing, and reinforces the notion that cable use is less contingent
on demography as the differences between adopters and nonadopters levels over
time (Sparkes & Kang, 1986). The fact the minorities are slightly more likely
to view can perhaps be better understood in the context of general media use.
For instance, past work on TV viewership indicates that general viewership is
higher among larger, younger and lower income families (e.g., Lin, 1994). This
is clearly not the case with access, even when the distinctive demography of
cable subscribership is taken into account.
It's striking to note that there is virtually no name recognition for PEG
programs, as indicated by the zero match between shows named by respondents and
show titles in cable schedules. This is further supported by the fact that only
19 respondents mention that they learned about PEG programming from a cable TV
Nevertheless, fandom is apparent in a portion of the open-ended responses.
Viewers report enjoying very specific fare: "The mayor's Gospelfest," "midnight
basketball," "new regarding drug busts," and "the smoke detector program." It
seems that "really local" programming is the most salient PEG content for cable
viewers in this system. The majority of identifiable programs cited are on only
two of the six PEG channels--Channel 35 (city government-supplied programming)
and Channel 45 (a hybrid lease/LO channel). Much of the programming on the
Community Access Corporation channels is widely ignored--religious programs,
Spanish-language programs, and educational shows.
This selective viewership of PEG fare might explain why the anticipated
repertoire of complementary channel use--which we expected to include similar
public-affairs channels (e.g., PBS)--was rather broader than anticipated.
Perhaps the underlying motivations for channel selection are more basic, or
based on deeper content dimensions than can be implied from the channel titles.
Our breakouts on access content types did rehabilitate our expectations of
public-affairs media clusters derived from H2, as viewership of PEG-government
affair was related to newspaper readership. Further work should proceed on this
point, as researchers extend uses and gratifications beyond the level of media
modality to include channel or program-specific viewing motivations.
The most promising approach in defining such audience demand involves the
identification of specific sources of information about access and program
categories desired. Our results underscore the need to move beyond global media
substitution conceptions and focus on specific (e.g., channel-specific)
functional equivalence. For instance, it's possible to expand the scope of
motivation and gratification factors associated with audience use of
differential entertainment and information content outlets. The present study
is intended as a preliminary step in this direction.
Even though this study only provided an exploratory examination of the role
of QOL variables in access viewership, we see little evidence of community
integration variables playing a role in access viewership. This "nonfinding",
taken in tandem with the insignificant demographic results, provides little
support for the "information-seeker" profile characteristic of other public
affairs media users.
However, as the number and magnitude of relationships uncovered here is
rather uneven, it's likely that variables beyond the present study scope could
help explain the remaining variance. These variables may include opinion leader
influences in the consumer's public affairs orientation, functional
compatibility or displacement of existing channels for community information and
other socio-cultural factors (e.g., family life-style and leisure patterns).
Although use of several other cable channels was linked to access
viewership, it's interesting that none of the other media modalities were so
related. The relatively weak explanatory role played by traditional media use
implies a need to continue refining notions of functional similarity leading to
media-use clusters (Atkin, 1993; Reagan, 1991).
Thus, it will be important to repeat this research over time as new leisure
options come online. In particular, later work should address the relative
popularity of media leisure activities as specialized voice, video and data
services become available on the emerging information grid.
Taken together, the robust levels of access viewing noted here confirm past
findings indicating that the performance of access in terms of viewership seems
modest, in comparison with commercial VHF TV. According to the criterion for
ratings success among cable services, where a rating of 2% is acceptable
--and even the broadcast networks have fallen to single digits--access channels
nevertheless seem able to hold their own against the competition.
Judging purely on the basis of audience viewership and satisfaction, per
Atkin and LaRose's (1991) national study, it would seem that community channels
have earned a place on the cable roster. That these channels can outperform a
third of the more lavishly produced basic services should also establish their
market value to cable operators. By comparison, viewership among other basic
cable services ranged as high as 60% in their study, although this level
compared favorably with several better-funded program services (e.g., Lifetime,
C-SPAN, PTL and SPN). Such channels even matched the performance of Arts &
Entertainment, CBN and Lifetime, although the authors caution that some of those
basic services have increased in popularity since that time, which might account
for the relatively lower performance of access found here.
Even so, our updated findings prompt us to echo past arguments that
community channels should be worth as much as the basic channels they
outperform. Just as operators must pay upwards of a dollar-per subscriber for
certain basic services, community programming might warrant a similar degree of
commitment. This argument is less appealing, however, when one considers the
production side of the equation. Here we see that community programming
operations can cost anywhere from $10 to $100 per subscriber (Atkin & LaRose,
1991). In those cases, access programming remains a burden for cable operator,
especially when some of the channels they outperform include more lucrative PPV
It is upon this cost/value relationship that many cable operators will
likely base their continued opposition to community programming. Up to this
point, that operator reluctance has been offset by city franchise officials
seeking to better serve their constituency. However, in light of recent
"public relations" concerns, such as the Kansas city debate regarding Ku Klux
Klan access, even city support might be in jeopardy. Neither city officials nor
cable operators are likely to embrace access until these controversies are
settled, and more satisfied viewers are being delivered.
It is important, then, for community programmers to make subscribers aware
of the medium's potential as a source for local news and information. Community
channels could be one of the most popular forms of cable programming. To date,
that promise has not been fully realized in terms of viewership and program
awareness. More community resources will have to be expended to develop and
promote community programs, most likely at the grassroots level.
This should provide a needed supplement to conventional funding strategies,
where money is obtained directly from the cable operators, and later passed to
subscribers in the form of higher monthly fees. Since the value of programming
has not always merited audience support, conventional strategies have forced the
majority to pay for the video production interests of a very few. Cable viewers
have even had to subsidize the production activities of many users who are not,
themselves, subscribers. In light of the recent concerns regarding access
programming, such policies are likely to face increased challenges on political
as well as economic fronts. Alternative support strategies, including
underwriting (for public access), PBS-style auctions, pledge drives and
dedicated franchise fees more palatable options from the perspective of public
The uneven audience patronage of access formats found here also reinforces
past calls for access programmers to adopt a policy of triage in terms of
resource allocation. That is, rather than trying to maximize access,
coordinators and access group leaders could focus on a smaller number of higher
quality productions. This emphasis of quality over quantity might raise
concerns about limiting the debate which public access was originally designed
to promote. But, through such mechanisms as mandatory training classes and
coordinator-supervised production, it would be possible to reduce some of the
sloppiness to which viewers might take exception. This supervision could not,
however, extend to the actual substance of access speech.
As the public affairs literature (e.g., Auferheide, 1993) indicates,
community programmers must meet a higher local service mission than their
commercial counterparts. Their content--addressing public, educational and
governmental affairs--positions them as news and information anomalies in a TV
medium heavily skewed towards entertainment. Where public access channels are
more entertainment-oriented, they are largely purposive in nature, intending to
inform or influence their audience in some way. Hence, by virtue of their
local, non-profit orientation, PEG and other locally leased access channels are
natural outlets for news on a wide range of ethnic, community and political
affairs. Such matters, no doubt, often fall through the cracks of commercial
broadcasters--dependent as they are upon the profit motive.
So community programmers have been designated to fill that nonmainstream
niche--as we document here--providing a last forum of access to an electronic
medium characterized by high barriers to entry. Paradoxically, as regulators
move to sell off the public spectrum at an unprecedented rate, PEG they must
increasingly meet the very commercial standards that prompt broadcasters to
sacrifice local news in favor of a "tried-n-true" agenda of national issues
(e.g., Porter & Banks, 1988).
Amidst this rapidly changing media environment, this study establishes that
PEG still commands a sizable audience. We also examined the manner in which
media-use patterns--as well as social locators and QOL attitudes--influence
viewership of cable access. Although the latter areas are not related to PEG
viewership, results generally confirm our expectation that media use
variables--particularly those addressing functionally similar news/information
contents--are more explanatory than demographics (e.g., Jacobs, 1995).
On balance, and despite these individually significant delimiters, we find
PEG viewers largely indistinguishable from PEG non-viewers on the basis of
general media habits, selected attitudes, or social locators. Clearly, PEG
viewers are sociologically "mainstream" (rather than elite, isolate, or
subversive), although their cable viewing selections tend to be "offstream."
Notwithstanding these public interest dimensions, PEG channels must, in the
final analysis, also be judged by their ability to reach viewers and actually
achieve desired social effects. Although the present study documents selective
patterns of demand for such public affairs content, it will be important to
continue to document the audience demand and uses for community programming in
REASSESSING PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR PUBLIC ACCESS CABLEVISION: A FADED
Cable public, educational and government (PEG) channels have, in recent
years, emerged as an alternative vehicle for presenting and receiving community
news or information. While no longer mandated by the Federal Communications
Commission, these and other community types of community access have attracted a
good deal of controversy. Typically, channel users seek to protect this last
remaining channel of "open" access to the electronic marketplace of ideas media.
Many cable system operators, however, are forcing community programmers to
become more accountable for the resources that are used for access channels.
They are asking community programmers to justify their efforts--and even their
existence--using the same criteria that are applied to other forms of cable
This paper examines performance issues concerning the electronic PEG forum,
analyzing recent trends in terms of awareness, interest, viewership and viewer
satisfaction with local access programming. The study is based on a survey of
cable subscribers in a major metropolitan market.
In general, the results suggest that community channels are indeed an
important part of the cable programming mix. Open-ended responses suggest that
meetings are the most commonly viewed access fare, followed by sports
programming. Overall, viewership levels compare favorably with a third of the
satellite-delivered channels. It is suggested that such channels should be
worth at least as much as the basic channels they outperform, in some cases more
than a dollar per subscriber per year in on-going support. Implications for
local news and government programming for communities with higher access
programming costs are also discussed.
REASSESSING PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR PUBLIC ACCESS CABLEVISION: A FADED
This paper examines performance issues concerning local public, educational
and government (PEG) access channels. The study is based on a survey of cable
subscribers in a major metropolitan market.
The findings suggest that community access channels compare favorably with
many satellite-delivered channels, though viewership is not strongly related to
use of other media. Open-ended responses suggest that meetings are the most
commonly viewed access fare, followed by sports programming.
REASSESSING PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR PUBLIC ACCESS CABLEVISION: A FADED
Leo W. Jeffres
David J. Atkin
Department of Communication
Cleveland State University
Cleveland, Ohio 44115
The authors wish to thank Jennifer Kraly-Harris and Paul Skalski, both graduate
students in the Department of Communication, for their assistance in this
Paper prepared for the Communication Technology & Policy Group, annual
conference, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
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April 1, 1998
Dr. Jung-Sook Lee, Research Chair, CT&P
Department of Communication
University of Southwestern Louisiana
P.O. Box 43650
Lafayette, LA 70505-3650
Dear Prof. Lee:
Please find enclosed six copies of a paper, submitted for consideration in the
CT&P Division's open competition for this year's AEJMC conference. My coauthors
are Leo Jeffres and Kim Neuendorf.
Feel free to contact me if you should need any further information.
Thanks much for your consideration. Hope to see you in Baltimore!
David J. Atkin, Ph.D.
--INSERT FROM OTHER FILE---
PEG viewers are most likely to report. . .
PEG-sports viewers are more avid video viewers. . .
Newspaper readership is positively related to viewing of
government. . .