While flipping through the cable channels, viewers can easily overlook Rockdale’s government access Channel 23 on their way to the latest Housewives episode or sports game.
But PEG (public educational governmental) channels serve a vital role in informing the public about what’s going on in local government. For many county residents, Channel 23, is the only chance they have to keep up with county commission, water and zoning meetings.
So when local groups holding candidate forums before the July primaries were turned down in their requests to film and air their events, questions arose on just how the county decides what goes on air and what doesn’t.
Community Affairs Director Tonya Parker said there is no BOC approved policy in place addressing the content and practice of running Channel 23.
But she weighs several factors in deciding what to cover and air on Channel 23, in addition to public county meetings.
“I try to take into consideration — is it a benefit to the community overall? Is it a broad enough topic to the community overall?” said Parker.
She said the department often includes information about non-county entities and events, such as the library, city events, the extension office, and high school events.
And the Hometown Holidays parade and performances, one of the biggest events filmed and aired on Channel 23, is a city-county event.
“The thing that I balance is what people said has been done in the past with the reality of today. Today, there are two people. When there were four people there was more opportunity to go out and film more shows,” said Parker.
The Community Affairs department was reduced from four personnel to two during budget cuts in 2010 that eliminated about 30 positions in the county.
Regarding the pre-primary events, Parker said she was hit with requests from groups such as the Fraternal Order of Firefighters, the Rockdale NAACP, the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce to come out and film and air their candidate events.
For many of the events, organizers weren’t sure exactly of the parameters, such as how long it would take or how many candidates would be involved, said Parker, which made it difficult to gauge what the overtime and resource requirements would be. So she said no to all the events rather than say yes to a few a no to others.
But, she said she’s working on forming an application process for groups to request filming or airing their election-related events before November. “For this election season, I’d like to get those things put in place, so there’s a clear way to step forward and say can we have these things taped.”
There is ongoing discussion with the Chamber of Commerce for their candidate forum in the fall.
As far as editing, she said for public meetings such as the Board of Commissioners, there is no editing.
“(The meetings and public comments) can get caustic, but that is not for us to edit. From the time they call the meeting to the time they close the meeting, we film.”
Even when there are executive sessions and long pauses, she said the meetings are left as is so there will be no question.
“My understanding is that’s always been the policy. It’s definitely been the practice since I’ve been here,” she said.
According to the FCC website, cable companies can give public entities such as local governments and school systems, and colleges access to a cable channel, labeled PEG channels (Public Educational Governmental) but are not required to. The description on the website states, “PEG channels are not mandated by federal law, rather they are a right given to the franchising authority, which it may choose to exercise. The decision whether to require the cable operator to carry PEG channels is up to the local franchising authority. If the franchise authority does require PEG channels, that requirement will be set out in the franchise agreement between the franchising authority and the cable operator.
Rockdale’s Channel 23 started in the early 90s, but even before that, the county would reportedly bring edited interviews and tapings to Comcast to air.
The latest franchise agreement with AT&T/Comcast, signed in June 2002, runs until June 21, 2014. In that agreement, the county received a one-time grant of $50,000 to go toward capital expenditures for setting up the channel. In return, the cable company had access to the county’s right-of-ways.
The franchise agreement spells out specific proportions of programming the county has to maintain in order to keep the channel. Among the requirements, the channel must air qualified PEG programming at least 80 percent of the time during 8 a.m. — 10 p.m. Monday to Friday. Repeat programs can only make up 25 percent of the qualified programming, programs that are not locally produced nor about the local area can only make up to 50 percent of the programming, and video bulletins should not be more than 16 percent of the qualified programming.
The agreement also specifies the franchisee has editorial control over the content and not the company.
The 2012 budget for the Community Affairs department is about $237,000. The lion’s share of that goes to running Channel 23, said Parker. Personnel expenses make up about $180,000 of that, with the salaries for two full time staff totaling about $128,000.
According to a May 8 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, DeKalb County spends about $150,000 for the salaries of three employees to run its government access channel.