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Community access television in the digital age

Community access television—sometimes also called public access television—has been around since 1971, when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) began requiring cable companies to provide public access. The main purpose of community access television has always been to give a voice to ordinary citizens who otherwise wouldn’t have access to media outlets. The question today, however, is whether or not this purpose is still relevant.With the emergence of citizen journalism through blogs and other online forums, coupled with the explosion of online video and podcast consumption, it is now perceived by many communities that citizens have an ample variety of community news and information sources elsewhere.

While this may be true, the CRTC’s 2010 annual report on the communications industry indicates that Canadians still get more of their news and entertainment through television than online. In fact, in 2009, Canadians watched an average of 26.5 hours of television per week, compared with 14.5 hours spent online per week.

Research aside, public access television also offers many benefits beyond accessibility that new technology hasn’t changed. For starters, most community television stations offer education and training in the field of broadcast and, through experience, training in advocacy. It can be used as a tool to foster relationships between local government, community groups and events through free promotion in exchange for community access programming and content. And, unlike many online outlets, it’s strictly local which means it can be highly relevant when used well.

So how do you use it well? If your community is rethinking community access, think about redesigning before retiring it:

  • Integrate with digital
    The great thing about the digital world is that it offers tools to enhance and enliven other communications channels—there’s no reason that your community can’t embrace the digital world while still providing quality community access programming. Take a cue from Denver Open Media, a community access television station in Denver, Colo. and build a website that complements television programming. Each show submitted for programming is posted online and viewers are encouraged to vote and comment via the website or their cell phones. Arguably, the most unique aspect of the site is that they don’t have a programming department. The votes and metadata automatically determine the schedule based on a multi-layered algorithm with various rules and parameters. Talk about interactive programming. Here in Canada, Cape Breton-based Telile Community Television also does a great job complementing its cable offerings online.
  • Leverage citizen journalism
    Blogs and social media sites have removed the barrier for many community members to report and consume news that impacts them as it happens. There’s no reason community access television programming can’t harness some of this appeal by using digital tools. Cambridge Community Television, CCTV, has done just that with its unique initiative—NeighborMedia Cambridge. A hyper-local citizen journalism project whose participants include professional journalists, retired journalists and people with no journalism background at all, NeighborMedia includes stories by locals describing various neighborhood points of interest, issues to be addressed, useful community services, and more. In Canada, Calgary’s NUTV offers University of Calgary students and citizens of Calgary an opportunity to learn how to produce TV shows and news clips. Entice community members to participate by starting with a video blog entry contest—ask viewers to submit their own news stories on topics like city planning or upcoming events for a chance to win prizes like city-branded sweatshirts or fleece.
  • Go live
    Many community access stations have found great interest from constituents in offering live coverage of city council meetings, high school sporting events and other special community events. In creating or encouraging this kind of programming, you’re increasing the station’s relevancy while educating community members and providing a service. Take it a step further by offering live-streaming of the same content on your website for a double whammy.
  • Rethink training
    Public engagement is at the heart of community access programming. What’s more, community access stations were once regarded as great community resources for becoming skilled and trained in telecommunications. This still holds a great opportunity, just in a new way. The future of community access is about creating a collaborative centre that offers Internet access, training sessions for using and creating online video/audio content to all members of the community—integrating the best of television and the Web. Use training sessions as a way to promote word-of-mouth marketing by sending students home with totes or travel mugs emblazoned with the station’s call sign and Web address.
  • Cross promote
    Remind people that you’re available to them and why—promote your community access television in other government communications, such as in city e-mail signatures, links on the website or social media. You can also hand out fun giveaways like stress relievers or pencils at community events to promote the channel or specific programming.

Don’t let new technology pass you by—integrate with a solid community access television programming and you’re certain to continue to reach audiences while engaging and entertaining.

Rosen-Molina, Mike. “MediaShift . Public-Access TV Fights for Relevance in the YouTube Age | PBS.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. 17 Dec. 2008. Web. 25 Oct. 2010.

“Communications Monitoring Report.” CRTC.  29 Jul. 2010. Web. 29 Oct. 2010.

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