Nearly 80 percent of respondents in a recent City of Wilmington survey said the city should secure a public access television channel that residents and organizations may use to express themselves.
Almost 72 percent said they would support the use of local tax dollars for the channel, and about 65 percent said they would tune in daily or weekly.
The numbers’ influence on local leaders may come known Jan. 15, when City Manager Sterling Cheatham will put the matter before Wilmington City Council, a city spokesman said Monday. Cheatham, who mid last month provided council members an 80-page packet of related information, plans to ask the board at that night’s regular meeting whether, and how, it wishes to proceed.
Meanwhile, the idea’s chief supporter is communicating through social networks and email that it’s an opportunity the city ought to seize, with Wilmington said to be one of the few populous areas in North Carolina lacking such a platform. Chapel Hill, Durham, Charlotte, Knightdale, Greensboro, Raleigh, and Greenville are among cities with public access channels.
Steve Lee, head of the Wilmington-based Southeastern Alliance for Community Change (SEACC), said he’s aware of the upcoming city council discussion and is hoping locals before then will “stand up for the First Amendment” and expand known support for the proposal.
Recently posted results show 339 people–89 percent of them claiming Wilmington residency–participated in an online survey the city posted in November to gauge the public’s interest in an access channel.
With the vast majority in favor, about 77 percent of all respondents said they’d like to see the channel used for arts, educational, community or nonprofit-related programming, while 44 percent said they’d enjoy political shows.
Only 17 percent liked the idea of religious programming. The category “other” received 35-percent support.
“Public access television is a form of non-commercial mass media where ordinary people can create content television programming, which is run on a specific cable TV channel,” Cheatham described in an April memo to the city council following SEACC’s push. “It is primarily local programming where various community interests can have access to share their views, perspectives and expressions.”
But essentially anything covered under the First Amendment, even content the city’s government and majority of residents may find objectionable, could be featured on the channel. If the city were to deny an anti-government group from an available time slot, for instance, that group would have a legitimate claim to sue, according to the city’s legal department.
The survey’s results show more than 85 percent of respondents would find that depth of free-speech–or at least the possibility of it–acceptable, though they expounded in an open writing space the city provided at the end of the survey.
“I believe that special interest groups would try and probably succeed in making such a channel an outlet for gay/lesbian, lousy artist, and weirdo political types, none of which I would support,” wrote one of the respondents. Identities were not disclosed.
Said another, “I think that religious programing is in violation of the separation of church and state and if you were going to allow churches to run programs I would be extremely against public funding for it.”
More individual responses:
- “Strong film industry and independent film presence in Wilmington would raise the quality of public access material!”
- “Without public TV, we are simply another big media mudhole full of uneducated losers who grow up southern and racist.”
- “If it’s government funded, public access tv needs to run programs that are politcally (sic) correct.”
- “I think that this is something that Wilmington has been sorely lacking to become a more cohesive local community.”
- “This channel would be great for the community with its diversity. This can be a place to get our products out, and grow our businesses.”
- “I feel like it would be a waste of tax dollars! Use the money for local infrastructure. Stop wasting money on things we don’t need!”
Actual costs the city may face for the channel aren’t solid, but at a Wilmington City Council meeting with staffers in September, officials learned of limited support from sales taxes collected on telecommunications and video programming services. A $4 million state pot divided by the number of “public, educational and government” access–or PEG–channels in North Carolina could afford the Wilmington channel a little more than $2,700 a month.
City attorneys have also encouraged the city, if it green-lights the channel and accepts its risks, to buy insurance that could range $3,000 to $5,500 a year.
The basic start-up expenses–for fiber optic lines and equipment for production and transmission–could fall beyond $43,000, according to an estimate from the city attorney’s office. Officials have, however, argued that about half the bill should go to Time Warner Cable (TWC), the area’s service provider that the city says should allocate the channel upon request.
But the city doesn’t expect TWC to comply; in that case, litigation and associated costs could follow, should the city continue its pursuit.
North Carolina law says any city with at least 50,000 people can have at least three PEG channels by request to the local cable provider.
While Wilmington has GTV, a government-access channel that airs city council meetings and other governmental business on TWC channel 8, the city claims it never asked for an additional public channel.
TWC did air local content on channel 4–a lot of it church-based–but discontinued it in November 2009. The city allegedly declined an offer from TWC around that time for the bandwidth that has, in result, since been reallocated and is no longer available, rendering the channel nothing but snow today. The city says no record exists to show it ever declined a channel offer.
But if successful in obtaining a new channel for public access, the city wouldn’t necessarily be bound to spend much or any taxpayer money, said Lee of SEACC. The city council could, for instance, pass a resolution insisting the channel only operate self sufficiently, or at least with funding sources other than the city budget.
“It’s a misconception that the city is going to have to put a lot of money into it,” he said.
SEACC has handed the city council a draft resolution to begin the search for a third party that would operate the channel.
“It’s really simple,” Lee said of the resolution. “It basically says public access is a good thing and the city council directs the manager to put out a request for proposals for public access services for the city.”
That draft is viewable here.
A presentation from the city about the public access proposal and its background is viewable here.