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What Should Public Access TV Do With Its Money?

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There's a forum tonight on what to do with funds for public access.

Public access TV – that bastion of local eccentricity – is in a little bit of an odd position in Austin.

Not surprising news, if you’re thinking about Alex Jones’ early days on the airwaves, or gonzo programming like The Cola Sisters. But instead, public access stations – channels 10, 11 and 16 (collectively Channel Austin), plus channels 6, 17, 19 and 22 on your Time Warner or Grande cablebox, and channel 99 on AT&T U-Verse – is in a relatively new and novel financial situation.

Those three cable companies pay one percent of their gross revenue in what are called public educational and government fees (PEG) fees, that go to the public access stations. About $1.8 million is collected annually. (Cable companies also cough up five percent of their gross to the city’s general fund.)

The PEG fees, specified in state law, are bringing in much more money than cable companies’ previous franchise agreement with the city. In 2011, Austin’s cable companies changed from a local franchise agreement to a state franchise agreement. Under the old arrangement, PEG fees were much lower: the city’s telecommunications officer Rondella Hawkins says the old way netted roughly the same amount as the new one does, $2 million – not annually, but over the course of 15 years.

So the money’s coming in, but here’s the rub: those PEG funds can only be used on capital expenditures – new facilities and big equipment purchases, not operations and maintenance costs. Basically, public access is materially flush but comparatively cash poor.

Tonight, the city is hosting a roundtable discussion with access TV operators and citizens, discussing what should be done with the PEG funds. “It’s meant to get some input on maybe how the PEG channels can collaborate more,” Hawkins says, possibly including equipment sharing agreements between PEG stations.

The forum is tonight, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. in the Boards and Commissions room at Austin City Hall – and natch, will be shown on City of Austin Channel 6.

If you need to clear you mind from this Byzantine web of regulation, don’t worry. This 12-minute video of prank calls from Austin public access’ mid-90s heyday should do the trick. (Some audio may be not safe for work.)