This is partly in response to Jason Mittell’s recent post in which he outlines very clearly the challenges facing Public Access TV in the U.S. (thanks fr posting the slides, Jason!). He begins by pointing out that PEGs (Public/Educational/Governmental channels) “traditionally have served as community media centers, local anchors in a media system that has skewed toward national and global models.” While acknowledging that digital media technologies and platforms have created many new opportunities for media production and circulation by individuals and communities, Jason reminds us that digital divides do exist even in the U.S (in the case of a town like Middlebury, particularly along generational lines).
At the same time, given the pace of changes in the media landscape and ongoing regulatory changes (see this Flow piece for more details), the future of public access TV does look bleak. Taking stock of all this, Mittell asks if we ought to acknowledge that the public access model has “outlived its necessity.” And if we do, how do we go about ensuring the formation and sustenance of new kinds of community media systems?
I know very little about the history of public access TV in the U.S., but it is a topic I need to learn more about as I think about the history of South Asian-American diasporic media production and circulation. But for now, perhaps I can draw on my own experiences in the U.S. to make a few observations and raise some questions.
During the 1990s, enterprising desis in large metropolitan areas like New York/NJ, D.C., Atlanta, parts of Florida, the Bay area, L.A., and so on began leasing 30-60 minutes from the local public access channel to broadcast a variety program. This variety program, broadcast on Saturday mornings, would typically be a mix of film-related content (songs and some filmy gossip) and news concerning desis in the U.S., with advertisements from desi businesses (restaurants, jewelry stores, etc.) and companies interested in doing business with desis (Western Union, for e.g.). These shows were local, and often, family affairs. Needless to say, in the pre-satellite, pre-Internet era, desi families across North America looked forward to this one hour show each week.
Today, in a world of satellite television, p2p networks, blogs, and YouTube, it is indeed difficult to envision a role for public access television in relation to diasporic media production. And indeed, most of us would point to this mediascape as evidence of how media broker relations between different localities. But if I step back for a minute and leave media out of the picture, I see right away that the struggle over defining the “local” is a defining aspect of diasporic life.
We can now move on to suggest that where diasporic communities are concerned, the “local-ness” of public access TV does not mean a connection to the local in the way Mittell suggests it is for Middlebury residents. Desis used public access television to re-make the “local,” if only for an hour each week. Public access TV allowed desis to keep alive some connections with “home” and, in many cases, created a space for desi parents to introduce their children to some aspects of life in South Asia. Written from a diasporic perspective, public access TV has also had a very global life. And where South Asian-American media production/circulation is concerned, we could even argue that public access TV laid the foundation for satellite television companies like EROS/B4U, Zee, etc. In fact, one dot-com entrepreneur I know began as a producer of a one-hour variety show in southeast Michigan and went on to develop the same content for the Web.
The question is, is there something to be learned from the intersection of diasporic life and public access TV that might help us re-imagine PEGs today? I’m afraid I don’t have anything to offer at this point. I will keep thinking about it though…