Cable television in Madison and around Wisconsin has been awash in political ads for TV4US, an AT&T-supported national advocacy lobby that is pushing hard for the passage of AB207/SB107 in the state legislature.
Known as the "Video Competition Act," it would transform the technical and regulatory infrastructure for subscription TV throughout the state if passed. The bill would open the door for AT&T to enter into direct competition with cable providers for your eyeballs, and in the process contend opponents, remove local control of video franchises, deregulate requirements for rural access and basic packages, remove the right of municipalities to schedule and charge telecom companies for working in streets, and perhaps most significantly, dismantle the funding and broadcasting framework for public, educational, and government (PEG) cable access channels that provide local programming, training, and business opportunities in communities around Wisconsin.
Needless to say, the operators, volunteers, and supporters of cable access stations serving the state are opposed to this bill.
A group of 45 PEG access stations in the Wisconsin Association of PEG Access Channels (WAPC) has organized SaveAccessWisconsin, a campaign to build opposition to the proposal. Responding to the far larger and largesse-laden operation of the bill's supporters, these local television enthusiasts have a pair of public service announcements (PSA) challenging the legislation and warning of its potential consequences to community television.
One is a basic spot, utilizing a pair of hands and narrator to criticize TV4US and its claims before explaining the interests and actions of PEG channels in Wisconsin over the course of three minutes.
The other PSA is much shorter, clocking in at just one minute, but it tells a much more personal story about the value of cable access television. "I hate [inaudible], they bite and scratch," says a young man wearing a jester's hat in the lower left-hand corner of a grainy video clip in the beginning of the spot.
"This is what Blame Society Productions looked like back in 1993," explains Aaron Yonda in a voiceover atop the clip. "And this is what we look like today," he continues as the strains of an acoustic "Imperial March" start playing atop scenes from their breakout hit Chad Vader.
"But how did we get from this to this?" asks Yonda rhetorically over another pair of before-and-after images. "With the help of locally-funded public access TV stations," he responds. Yonda goes on to credit cable access with the success of their programming and their subsequent ability to work as filmmakers in a state that's quite a distance from either coast.
This PSA isn't the first time that creations by Yonda and his Blame Society Productions filmmaking partner Matt Sloan have been cited in the debate over this video compensation bill.
Back in February, Wisconsin Technology Council president (and former State Journal pundit) Tom Still used Chad Vader as his central talking point in a column arguing in favor of AB207/SB107. He claimed that YouTube is the "public access channel of the 21st Century," an ironic point considering that one of the primary objections by SaveAccessWisconsin is that the bill would allow AT&T to lower the broadcast quality of PEG channels to online levels as the era of high-definition broadcasting approaches. "At a time when a couple of filmmakers in Madison can create a series that gets 7 million hits on the Internet, is it really necessary to subsidize public access television channels?," asked Still.
Sloan and Yonda certainly think so. The shared their thoughts on the issue (and assertions that their success delegitimizes cable access) a few days later in response to a query from UW telecommunications professor Barry Orton. Both spoke strongly in favor of cable access, with Orton highlighting the frankest portions of their statements. "I know for sure if funding had been pulled from our public access station at any point in my video making career Chad Vader would never have existed," responded Yonda. "To take the success of two internet entrepreneurs and use that to make a case for gutting funding for public access stations is pretty shortsighted and frankly, dumb," responded Sloan.
Orton concluded: "Local access channels provide real value to their communities, and, in fact, 'can be a vital part of community democracy,' whether it's providing coverage of City Council and school board meetings, or the high school basketball games, or locally-grown comedy."
As the fight over the bill built over the course of spring, these latest exemplars of locally-grown comedy in Madison were approached by SaveAccessWisconsin to create a PSA voicing their opposition to AB207/SB107 and support for quality local cable programming. They assented, and Blame Society's PSA was released online last week.