Humboldt is in grave danger of losing its public access television station. Operated by Access Humboldt, the station is the sole outlet for the artist who creates her own video programs, the teacher who wants to show his class a special documentary, the scientist describing her most recent discoveries and, most important for our democracy, a place where you can sit in your own living room and watch live meetings of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, your city council or the harbor commission.
But this may all go away soon. Suddenlink, which finances the station through fees collected from consumers under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), would like to keep a greater proportion of the money it collects. The company, along with many other cable providers, has petitioned the FCC to change the rules, allowing it to deduct the cost of "in-kind services" from the money it pays community stations. Since nobody knows what an in-kind service consists of and how much it is worth, some fear this could be a financial death blow to a very small station.
This is not just a Humboldt dilemma. It is happening all over the nation to hundreds of small stations and is a blow to our freedom of speech. Public access stations everywhere are pleading with their viewers to write to the FCC, asking them to keep the cable companies from decimating these important vehicles of free speech.
The FCC is currently evaluating the cable companies' demands and will accept public comment until Dec. 14. Under the current administration, the FCC has favored business over the public interest, most notably in its 2017 decision against net neutrality. Moreover, since the cable companies have already negotiated deals with local government agencies for use of public rights-of-way, allowing the companies to wiggle out of the deals would be a gift of public funds to private entities, not to mention an intrusion of the federal government into the affairs of state and local governments. Many public access stations believe these issues will have to be settled by the courts.
When television first entered the media world, in the 1940s, it was free. All you needed was an antenna on your rooftop and a set in your house. Of course, all you could get was the three or four local stations broadcasting in your town.
Then somebody came up with the brilliant idea of cable. For a monthly fee, you could have access to dozens, and then hundreds, of TV channels from all over the nation. But you did need an additional bit of infrastructure — the cable itself, which ran along public rights-of-way before branching off into people's houses.
The cable industry, in addition to persuading customers to pay for something that had previously been free, also had to pay local governments for easements across public roads, bridges and other facilities.
The FCC determined that the cable companies could offer up to 5 percent of their revenues as a fair price for these easements. To sweeten the pot when negotiating local franchises, some cable companies also provided free channels, air time, and equipment to communities that wanted them for educational and civic purposes.
In 2003, when cable franchises were being renewed, the cities of Eureka, Arcata, Fortuna, Rio Dell, Ferndale and the county got together and, with the help of consultant Sue Buske, worked out a deal with Cox Communications (Suddenlink's predecessor), forming a community media center known as Access Humboldt. Under the negotiated deal, the media center got a small percentage of the revenue collected locally by Cox, the use of five channels, and a wide area broadband network connecting 20 different public libraries, schools, auditoriums and town halls.
Access Humboldt currently operates out of a modest little studio, tucked away in the back of the Eureka High School campus. It runs four channels in northern and central Humboldt: 8, 10, 11, and 12, available to anyone who gets their cable through Suddenlink or watches television via a digital antenna; as well as Channel 7 in Southern Humboldt through the Wave cable system. It also operates a local radio station, KZZH-FM.
Access Humboldt covers everything from the Orick Rodeo to meetings of the board of supervisors, as well as most city councils. It broadcasts programs produced by students, ordinary citizens, activists, community groups and organizations and covers many of our local election debates and forums. Access Humboldt teaches Eureka High students how to produce their own TV programs and loans out video equipment to community members. If you don't know how to use the equipment, you can take one of Access Humboldt's frequent workshops, produce your own quality video and then upload it on an Access Humboldt channel for public viewing. In fact, it's very close to the original idealistic vision of what television was supposed to be all about.
If you want to see what's going on at an Arcata City Council meeting but the time is inconvenient, watch for one of the many re-runs of the program that will happen over the next few days. And if you want to check on a meeting that happened three years ago, it's archived on the Access Humboldt website at www.accesshumboldt.net.
This is what's at stake in the FCC's looming decision.
Elaine Weinreb is a freelance journalist and an Access Humboldt board member. She tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.
How to Comment
Write your letter and save it as a PDF file. Visit www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filings. For "proceedings," enter "05-311." Enter "reply comments" under type of filing, then fill in your name and address, and upload your letter. (There is an email confirmation option, which is recommended.) Alternately, those who prefer snail mail can send comments to Federal Communications Commission, 455 12th St., Washington, DC 20544.