Visions of televised meetings, specials on black culture and documentaries on District social issues gleam in the eyes of city cable television activists and organizers. They hope that organizing early in the cable franchising process will guarantee community access to cable channels, equipment, training and studio time.
Groups of cable activists, black women, children's advocates and independent producers are watching closely as the D.C. government's Cable Design Commission fashions a request for proposals to guide cable companies bidding for the city's potentially lucrative franchise.
Marjorie Newman, a former member of the D.C. Cable Coalition and the D.C. chapter of the National Organization for Women's media task force, is chairwoman of the committee that will design the public access section of the guide.
As part of its attempt to assess community needs, the Cable Design Commission is setting up task forces, with membership open to all District residents.
"We are hoping that out of the task forces will come mobilization and organization for public access ," Newman said. Task forces are being established to consider the programming interests of educators, minority women, small business, universities and colleges, Hispanics, health groups and hospitals, children and youth, religious groups, the elderly, women and independent producers.
Greg Epler-Wood of the Washington Area Film and Video League, head of the commission's Independent Production Task Force, said he sees opportunities for independent video producers in public access.
"I'd hope there would be an access structure in D.C. which would take advantage of these highly skilled but untapped media makers," Epler-Wood said. He predicted that programs will range from Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings to church services and gospel sings.
"Public access programming is often thought to provide entertainment and information to the general audience," he said. "It's not really that. More often it is programming geared to very narrow interest groups."
Design commission member Tayloe Ross is a longtime advocate for more media participation by women and minorities. She also is the key organizer of the Women's Community Access Channel Coalition, which seeks to operate a women's channel in the D.C. cable system. She cited the large number of women's organizations in Washington as a reason for having the special channel.
"We have one address list that has over 750 women's organizations on it in the D.C. area. Women in Film and Video has over 200 members; the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press has 100 members," Ross said.
Janette Hostin Harris, who teaches black history at Howard University, is a member of the D.C. Hook-up of Black Women, a communications network and talent bank for black women. The group has begun educational and organizing activities on cable television in the District.
"I think we've seen that the key issue is employment of youth and women in this city," Harris said. "There ought to be a black channel geared to the culture of the city," she added. "Plans are on the table now, and we will be inviting groups to join."
The Washington Association for Television and Children is primarily concerned that all children in the city have access to cable, members say. Member Mary Ann Banta said that "with pay cable some children will have access and there will be others who will not. What will we do when we have information-rich and information-poor children?"
Banta said her group is "concerned that the whole city is cabled, not just those sections which the cable franchisers believe will pay."
Legislation passed by the City Council last August requires the company that wins the District cable franchise to reserve a minimum of six channels for noncommercial public use on a first-come, first-served basis.
Some public access channels may be set aside for specialized programming by specific groups, and once the system has 3,500 subscribers, the cable company will be expected to operate two production studios for public use.
Public access channels will be administered by a Public Access Board through a nonprofit corporation. The board, to be appointed by the City Council and the mayor, will set policy for the use of the channels.
Nancy Caliman, chairman of community education for the D.C. Cable Coalition, a 3-year-old education and lobbying group, said her membership is concerned about the character of the board.
"I don't like the way the board is to be selected. It will be a very political selection in the way the selection of the design commission has been," Caliman sid.
She said political appointees may be too beholden to the mayor and City Council and not well enough informed about cable to regulate the public channels fairly.
Newman said the design commision in writing its guide for cable companies "will probably say that preference is to be given to those applicants who offer sufficient facilities properly equipped for public access. We don't want to ask for so much that everybody is discouraged from bidding on our request for proposals."
Meanwhile, the commission has asked the City Council to extend by 90 days to six months its original 90-day period to write the request for cable proposals.