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Consider this scenario: A small number of like-minded activists create an ambitious media project to promote their agenda. The project is a 24-hour public-affairs cable channel that aspires to reach “every person in America” and that, in time, may well have the capacity to succeed. Though fledgling, the channel is nothing if not ambitious: It aims to attract upscale, globally minded, PBS-watching viewers with informative programming that encourages empowerment, coalition-building, and grass-roots uprisings against the Washington elite.
Sounds like the perfect recipe for a leftie channel, right?
In fact, it’s the prescription for National Empowerment Television (NET), a round-the-clock cable channel operated by Reagan-era conservatives. NET’s Dec. 6 debut was heralded with considerable fanfare, including a front-page article in the Nov. 27 New York Times. It’s the brainchild of PaulWeyrich, right-wing gadfly and president of the rabble-rousing Free Congress Foundation, a Washington-based concern that espouses the virtues of capitalism and Judeo-Christian ethics. Each day, the channel offers a continuous loop of intellectual delights for underemployed right-wingers and Limbaugh-lovers throughout the nation, with hourlong shows on everything from “Killer Kids—What Should Society Do With Them?” to “Environmentalism—How Green Should We Be?” The aim is to inform and provoke.
“For a half-century, there’s been a megaphone from Washington pointing to America,” says NET Vice President Burt Pines, a journalist who came to NET after a long stint at the Heritage Foundation. “NET is going to take the megaphone and turn it around. On all of our programs, the phone lines will be open and America is going to call in….We’re post-Cold War, we’re post-ideological. We’re not Republicans or Democrats. We are populists. We’re on America’s side in its battle against Washington.”
The claim is a bit disingenuous: NET can hardly profess to be middle-of-the-road when it features Newt Gingrich on government reform and Concerned Women of America on Putting Families First. But considering the moderate-to-right stance of today’s crop of public-affairs programs, the new channel isn’t that far afield.
“The significance of NET is that it tilts the television media to the right even further,” says Jeff Cohen of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a left-leaning media-watchdog group.
Indeed, in the vast and growing choir of public-affairs cable talk shows, one might ask: Where is the voice of the left?
It’s left out—and mad as hell. “I hope this channel [NET] serves as a wake-up call to progressive funders,” says media consultant Patrick Esmonde-White, noting that leftist funding sources are far scarcer than right-wing benefactors. NET, under the presidency of ex-education secretary and drug war czar William Bennett, has attracted $10 million in start-up funds—including a $1 million contribution from the W.H. Brady Foundation. In addition, the conservative network has retained Madison Avenue’s Crane Media Sales, which has already attracted advertising commitments from the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and the National Review.
“The right wing has for a long time recognized that they have to put their money where their mouth is,” says Esmonde-White.
In contrast, the left struggles to attract benefactors and advertisers—in part, industry critics charge, because the nation’s cable wires are dominated by giant companies such as Tele-Communications Inc., Time Warner, and Comcast, whose corporate mentality isn’t exactly receptive to progressive programming. “Liberals who do have money hesitate to fund media projects,” says FAIR’s Jeff Cohen. “People say, “I’m tired of funding the best documentary never seen on television.’ ”
Moreover, the market is increasingly tight: Even NET found it difficult to merge onto the much-vaunted information superhighway. Currently, NET can be seen by the 14 million Americans whose homes are equipped with satellite dishes; although NET is available to cable systems free of charge, the only system that has agreed to carry it is Fairfax County’s Media General, which has 206,000 subscribers. Other systems, quite simply, are full.
“All of the focus and attention about this new technology has been on us as consumers—how many channels we’ll be able to receive, how many movies we’ll be able to watch,” says Tony Lewis, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media (ACM). “We need to make sure that we also can provide the programming—the information superhighway should be a modality for the First Amendment.” ACM is working to ensure that the superhighway has enough lanes for everyone.
Which is not to say that the left is entirely silent. Progressive television projects can be found on public-access channels; in most municipalities, cable companies are required by law to provide at least one such channel that’s open to community-based programs, both acquired and locally produced. The District’s 5-year-old public-access channel, DCTV, broadcasts a number of left-leaning shows such as Momentum, a half-hour program produced by the Human Rights Campaign Fund that focuses on gay and lesbian issues. Any individual or organization that wants to produce its own show can borrow equipment from DCTV, which offers monthly orientations and classes in video production and editing for a small fee.
In New York, public access has been a godsend for 12-year-old Paper Tiger Television, a coalition of artists, activists, and technicians who have made more than 200 half-hour shows analyzing mainstream media coverage. Recent segments include “Somalia: Kill to Feed”; “East Timor: Turning a Blind Eye”; and “Staking a Claim in Cyberspace: Information Policy for the People.” Unlike NET, however, Paper Tiger has limited itself financially—it eschews advertisements, and what little revenue it does receive comes mostly from the sale of tapes to university libraries. So far, the company has found two simpatico outfits that will beam its programming around the country via satellite: the strongly progressive ’90s Channel, based in Colorado, and New York’s Deep Dish TV Network, which broadcasts a diverse and eclectic mix of independent programs to public-access channels.
“Our biggest obstacle is corporate media,” says Linda Iannocone, Paper Tiger’s distribution coordinator. “Without a solid funding base, it’s impossible to gain access.”
But of all the progressive attempts to secure a niche in the wildly competitive cable market, the network with the greatest chance of succeeding on a national level is Los Angeles-based Planet Central. The network aims to end global environmental degradation and promote sustainable development. At the same time, it has developed a sound business strategy: While forging alliances with environmental and social justice organizations, Planet Central has also hired a public-relations firm, pitched its ideas at cable conventions, and retained Teamwork Productions, an ad agency that specializes in green and socially responsible advertisers. One proposed program is Toxic Court, “a People’s Court for polluters.”
Planet Central is chaired by Jay Levin, founder and former editor of L.A. Weekly, an alternative weekly newspaper. He insists they are not the flip side of NET.
“We’re not a counterpoint to a right-wing channel. We take an eco-perspective, which is much more democratic and entrepreneurial than the old left-right split….Our vision is about global change, including an economic system based on sustainable development.”
It would seem that Levin is courting the same centrist crowd that NET hopes to attract. “The hard right wing has taken a profound anti-environmental tone…yet 57 percent of the U.S. population lists the environment as one of their main concerns. We think we can become a strong network. People want it.”
Planet Central was announced to the cable industry in June of this year; the scheduled date for broadcast is early 1995. “We’re already a player in the industry; we’re already in serious discussions with cable companies,” Levin claims.
Planet Central is buttressed by more than rhetoric; its numerous advisory boards read like a Who’s Who of Green America. And it has founded its own nonprofit organization, the Community Media Project, to train grass-roots organizations in video production and assist them in hiring outside consultants; help produce public relations packets; and maintain a data base of film and video materials. This plan in part resembles the work of DC’s ecomedia, which has brought environmental activists to its Blagden Alley arts and ecology center and videotaped their lectures; ecomedia hopes to complete facilities for a video production center soon.
Obviously, the left isn’t there yet. But the number of projects in the works suggest that, in a few years, media-savvy people from every wing-nut organization should be able to broadcast their material to a market-researched audience—provided that telecommunications companies allow them access. If not, one can envision an angry mob of D.C. cable subscribers marching on District Cablevision to demand NET and Planet Central and Deep Dish programming. Viewers will be able to flip between a how-to show on “Getting the Death Penalty Reinstituted in Your State” and an Amnesty International fundraiser; with a tap of the remote control, couch potatoes can choose between a Philip Morris infomercial and a Ralph Nader update on which candidates for high office get the most money from tobacco companies. All political activity will be mobilized via telecommunications; we’ll be able to pledge money to organizations via e-mail and call our congresspeople toll-free. The left wing will catch up economically and consume, but with a clear conscience; Ben & Jerry’s will make great commercials; stock in ECO-GAS will skyrocket. Then again, perhaps the planet will merely fall asleep to 5 billion flickering blue lights.