As newspapers (the traditional media outlet that has sustained local civic life) slowly die, the following question seems ever more pressing—is it possible for citizens to know their local community through television? If the defining voice of a local community is that which is offered by the news programs of local broadcasters, then most citizens see a dark and bizarre world, one they may neither recognize nor want to inhabit. The one place I have found that comes close to serving a communitarian function for local television are government access channels on local cable. Elsewhere I have extolled some of the better programming I have found on local government channels across the U.S., programming that features meaningful political, cultural, and social issues, employing creative narrative approaches and using high-quality aesthetics (http://flowtv.org/?p=532). Here I want to offer the opposite—programming that is little more than the government’s position on an issue (what some might call government “propaganda”). In this segment, the local interview show is essentially turned over to the city economic development department to make its case for public funding of private development and redevelopment projects. This interview program allows the department to air a lengthy and horribly acted video that supposedly shows the viewer the positive things that come from city participation in public-private development projects while addressing common myths and frequent objections. The show ends with an interview of the department’s director, yet includes no serious questions that might critique the failures of these approaches. The question I have for readers is so what? Even through this one-sided presentation that offers citizens nothing in the way of meaningful critique, is it nevertheless important that citizens actually have an opportunity through television to engage with the city’s position? As scholars it is easy for us to see the glass half-empty as well as to distrust power. But do we also trust viewers enough to believe that they won’t always be duped by one-sided appeals? Does hearing the city’s side of the issue still help us as citizens—at least as compared to that which is provided by local TV news (which is typically nothing)? Or as citizens—that is, the people our local governments supposedly represent—should we demand that such government access channels provide alternative points of view on such issues (seeing that far fewer communities have public access channels)? What role for government TV in community life, even if the presentations are biased?
This is amusing. So thanks
This is amusing. So thanks for that, Jeff. I'm tempted to say, hell yeah, what's the harm in such obviously "government-rented" space on local news. If the acting is bad enough it opens a space for audience critique. I've read studies about LA local news turning as much as 1/3 of their time over to "product placement" type spots. Tho i haven't seen this kind of thing. It reminds me of the obviousness of political ads on propositions (a constant fixture in SoCal elections). Which turns nearly everybody off abt voting out here in general. Also, it brings to mind the atrocious acting and prod. values on HS driver's ed films and hygiene flix, which brings laughter. But also makes certain students dont pay attention to the content. End result is typically cynicism and apathy. But that's a cynical Los Angeleno talking...
Hi, Jeffrey: Interesting set
Hi, Jeffrey: Interesting set of questions. The clip you provide relates to many of the issues that have been discussed here this week, especially regarding the literal, physical space/place of the local. I suppose this intro to public-private funding serves a purpose, and I sort of enjoyed the "bland conversation" aesthetic so recognizable from PBS children's shows. (What, no thematically-significant song?) I find myself imagining more creative responses than the makers of this show might anticipate, such as mash-up parodies of this style of info-speak? One of the intriguing threads this week has been the potential significance of affording something like a pan-local (rather than "network"?) perspective on issues that directly affect one's own local/TV. Your clip leads me to wonder whether there might be interest in collecting/posting a kind of database of various cable access and public information TV shows, perhaps on sites like YouTube, so as to provide the raw material for pro-active creative responses--responses at the level of form as well as content. I suspect this would significantly alter the question of whether we can trust viewers to think and respond, moving toward interventions that can re-frame the questions posed, etc. Such alternative points of view might even help to awaken and re-fashion the significance of the concept of local and regional media, well beyond the "So what" that I fear characterizes these concepts today.
Jeffrey, Thanks so much for
Jeffrey, Thanks so much for this post. I find myself speechless, actually . . . But, I will forge ahead by noting that I'm intrigued that, when teaching my students (who are all interested in film and video production) about public access, so few are interested (though such stations are often the best way to get a great deal of production experience in all facets of video production, very quickly). The idea of watching an entire access program seems completely foreign to them and, a clip such as this, is one they would definitely keep surfing right past. Worse, I had a student once who told me that his parents would punish him, when he was a child, by making him sit and watch C-SPAN. So, to Jeff's question, "what role for government TV in community life" seems particularly pressing when we try to imagine who's watching government TV.
I'm actually encouraged by
I'm actually encouraged by the possibilities of this video, to be honest. Yes, the acting & the skit itself are, to be kind, marginal (can Tim Allen sue for libel?), and it's nakedly propagandistic (woo-hoo, a Wal-Mart moved in, and without a publicly funded bri-- uh, tax break and incentive package needed to entice them; think about what else we can do to bring in *more* big box stores to obliterate local businesses!) ... and we can critique other details and claims of the video until we're blue in the face. At the same time, given the dearth of sustained and significant attention given to local issues and local government (beyond corruption scandals) on most commercial television, this kind of programming provides a useful primer about many of the economic and public policy issues that local communities face ... and which most citizens never learn about, both because they don't have to and because there's not much opportunity to do so through media. And while the "Norfolk Home Improvement" video really isn't good, it's a lot more watchable than some of the other programming I've seen on government channels ... much of which consists of material shot by an evidently bored (or, possibly, sleeping) cameraperson attending a town hall meeting or city council forum and alternating wide shots of the chamber with close-ups of whoever happens to be speaking. That the local government was willing to invest a little bit of time and money, or at least time, to create a video with a coherent narrative and a somewhat engaging hook -- at least relatively speaking -- in order to present its position in a manner that bypasses the potentially distorting lens of a private industry (e.g. the local newspaper, local television or radio news, etc.), actually suggests the vibrancy of this kind of platform. Were I a citizen of Norfolk, I'd probably be more likely to watch this kind of familiar narrativized presentation than something more foreign or a roundtable talk show. With this in mind, it's possible that the primary role for government TV in community life is as a sort of animated press release platform. I'm not sure that's a bad thing. At the very least, it might at least keep some hope alive for a community space in which the virtues of government could be visible and promoted, rather than derided by critics who venerate the market and seem to want to evicerate democratic governments in favor of a plutocracy (unless, of course, the market fails -- in which case they plead for a bailout). This particular segment may not be a shining example every community should emulate ... but it might provide at least some counterweight or more information than a casual viewer or citizen might be able to obtain through other local news sources.
Thanks for the comments.
Thanks for the comments. Here are some follow-up thoughts. Again, I would suggest you check out the link above to my Flow article, where you can see government access videos from across the U.S. that are of very high quality--actually very interesting to watch. But again, I chose this one because it so smacks of the propaganda function that these channels are typically accused of performing. But I like Doug's way of looking at this--an animated press release. In many ways, that is the dominant form of material that appears on these channels, and as Doug notes, such releases still provide some level of information about our communities that watching, say American Idol, does not. As per Vicky's point about viewership, the data on viewership stinks (from my research). But amazingly, when localities actually do conduct surveys, the numbers of viewers are actually higher than one might think. Perhaps one of the biggest impediments to regular viewership of these channels is timely and accessible programming information. They simply do a really crappy job of helping viewers know what will be aired and when. Remember that C-SPAN actually does have quite a large number of die-hard viewers, so simply the content of these channels is not so off putting to everyone. We do know that while local municipalities use the government and educational channels, not as many provide for a public access channel. Mark's comments made me think that perhaps the best route for inviting the public into the conversation would be through the web. Many cities provide archives (and sometimes live streaming) of their shows. If governments are unwilling to provide the facilities, training, and cable space to the public, perhaps they should be pressured to use web server space as a means of "public reply." The web would actually facilitate the deliberative function that television (as a medium) so miserably fails (that is, allowing a space for public discourse on government policies such as this one). The overall problem, of course, is that government's typically won't do such a thing until it is demanded of them. And where will that demand come from if people don't TV/video as a form of public communication that involves them?
I too find this question
I too find this question fascinating. As a member of the Alliance for Community Media, a director on the Board of MassAccess (MA Chapter of ACM), and a 24-year veteran of the public-educational-government (PEG) "wars," I'd like to correct or amplify on some of the comments. JPJ states: "while local municipalities use the government and educational channels, not as many provide for a public access channel. " While this equation varies from state to state and city to city, it is my experience that most local access channels are no longer operated by cable companies, nor the government, but rather by independent PEG access non-profits. To observe the possibilities of such independent entities, consider Massachusetts. There are 351 cities and towns in the state, and in excess of 150 PEG access channel operations. Most, if not all, are independent NPO's funded by a small monthly fee on cable bills. Gov't access channels ARE a forum for animated press releases. They do not pretend to be news any more so than a mayor's monthly newsletter does. The electeds call this "constituent communications." Calling it government "propaganda" is a bit harsh insofar as the videos don't manipulate viewers into believing in something false or harmful, but rather (as someone said) let the viewer know where the elected officials stand. But none of these PEG channel entities can properly provide full-spectrum communicationjs of local affairs without the "three legs of the stool" -- P,E & G. But when the public access channel offers an unrestricted forum and a welcoming environment of any and all points of view; when the education channel presents entertaining and diverse learning opportunities; and when the government channel brings, at the very least, the CSPAN-esque presentation of government meetings, numerous community benefits are obtained. And well-managed PEG access centers not only allow these self-motivated entities to program, but also stimulate local dialogues and discussions, many times partnering with the League of Women Voters or the chamber of Commerce.. Finally, more and more PEG centers are producing their own local newscasts, thereby filling the void left by commercial broadcasters.. We are so far beyond the "Wayne's World" stereotype that, encouragingly, it is hardly ever used anymore to chastise PEG. "is it possible for citizens to know their local community through television?" Increasingly in America and around the world, the answer that question is "Yes, through PEG>"
When I read this I thought
When I read this I thought of the British cultural studies point that people may "read" the same television programming differently - from dominant (the local government has a message for us - that's cool), to negotiated (well I know this is just one point of view, and there are probably others--like the low-income folk displaced by this wonderful inner city development), to oppositional (just WHY are they working so hard to convince us of the rightness and necessity of this subsidized development--and "urban removal"), and that response will in turn depend on a viewer's own political perspective and experience. The point raised is who is watching this? Who would watch a "reply"? I worked in fighting a major urban development in the Fillmore section of San Francisco many years ago - and I have some basis for my own negotiated/oppositional reactions to this video. I think taking the video to local forums - and addressing it in front of the people most affected - would serve a good and interesting purpose. Because people could talk back to, agree or disagree, in a focused community setting. Someone zipping past at home, as several of the comments indicate, would make this a little blur in channel hopping. So the answer to the relevance, validity and effect of this little video, in two words: situational context.
The ultimate question, of
The ultimate question, of course, is what do we do when cities fail to provide for the P--public access channels? I live in the largest MSA in the state of Virginia, in a metro area with 7 cities--none of which have a public access station. Your scenario is the best one. But what to make of government channels when municipalities have taken control of the P space? Academics like to write about P, for obvious reasons. But almost nothing is written on the G. And as I have noted before, I find them actually a bit more complex (at least some of the times) than simply saying they are animated press releases. They are in the instance I have provided here, but in many municipalities, they are actually much broader and more complex than that. Great comments and contributions all around, though.
Add new comment