Many equate community television with the broadcast of local government meetings. However, community access TV, or CAT for short, fills a unique niche in the media landscape, providing communities with the opportunity to create programs of local interest.
First, some history
Public Access Television came about with the rise of cable television in the late 1970s. In exchange for the rights to lay cable wires on public land, cable companies were required to donate a portion of their revenue to provide facilities and airtime to allow public comment. The Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act of 1984 prohibited cable operators from exercising any editorial control over public-access channels.
Community access television became famous for its eccentric personalities and bizarre shows. This was the basis for the hit 1992 film, Wayne’s World. However, it has also been a venue for serious political and philosophical discussion, a place to find the recorded minutes of local town meetings or school board discussions. Access systems have proliferated and access programming is now being cablecast regularly.
How Community Access TV is structured
Cable systems make available three different narrowcasting and specialty channels, referred to as PEG, to represent use. This results in an entirely different sort of programming, reflecting the interests of groups and individuals usually excluded from mainstream television.
Technological advancements allow local community television stations to live stream and video share. Further, stations can have programming downloaded throughout the United States on other public access stations.
How to Work with Community Access TV
Frequently, public relations professionals disregard CAT as a legitimate vehicle for their clients’ messages because it does not have the reach of broadcast and cable television. PEG channels can approximate a type of blogging of community-oriented messages with high production values, cable distribution, and promotion of social inclusion. Most centers provide media production and literacy training, increasing the ability of community members to communicate.
What if I don’t represent a not-for-profit?
For public relations professionals CAT provides coverage of community-oriented events and opportunities to create original programming on just about any topic. For-profit organizations can utilize CAT if they have a community member produce the show and broadcast a non-commercial message, such as their community involvement.
Over the past three years, I have produced four award-winning shows at Brattleboro Community Television (BCTV). These include Family Matters for Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development, Healthcare Matters for Grace Cottage Family Health and Hospital, Rotary Cares for the Rotary Clubs of Brattleboro and Safstor Matters for Entergy Vermont Yankee.
The 30-minute show Safstor Matters was developed to communicate information about the nuclear facility to the public. The show was seen on BCTV, through the station’s YouTube channel, and broadcast on all the cable television stations in the facility’s emergency planning zone. Each month a different topic was explored with experts providing a venue to communicate directly with viewers without the opposition the company often encountered in public forums. A link to the show was found on the company’s website and was promoted via social media. It was awarded the BCTV 2015 Best Series of the Year and a 2016 Silver People’s Choice Telly Award. The show ran for 12 episodes and fulfilled its goal to inform, educate, and empower key audiences with accurate data and information about decommissioning.
Putting CAT in your PR toolbox
If you represent a non-profit community organization or a for-profit entity that’s doing great things in your community, join your local CAT to train in the basics of television production. For nominal annual dues, you will learn and support your local community access television station.
Community access television is still relevant in a media landscape with hundreds of radio, television, and online video channels. The reason is simply because it’s accessible to all and its worldwide reach.
Martin Cohn, who heads his own public relations agency, Cohn Public Relations, has been in the business for over 40 years. He is a member of PRConsultants Group, an exclusive nationwide network of about 50 highly-regarded, award-winning senior-level public relations and communications consultants working in every sector of every major U.S. media market. Martin also serves on the board of directors of Brattleboro Community Television. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.