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Don't save People TV, exactly

Public-access TV must transform itself to stay relevant

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People TV, Atlanta's own public-access Channel 24, has been cable-casting for 30-odd — sometimes very odd — years. Over that time, the scrappy station has provided studio space and airtime to drag queens, communists, vagina enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists, and outright nutjobs.

For much of its lifespan, it served its designated role as the ultimate free-speech forum for nonmainstream viewpoints, a place where anybody willing to learn basic TV production skills could share his opinions, offer social commentary, incite the masses, or just get silly — without fear of censorship or pressure from advertisers.

People TV now faces an existential crisis. Its traditional funding source, franchise fees from the local cable provider, was stripped away by the state Legislature in 2007, causing its revenue stream to shrink from more than $800,000 a year to about $100,000. Its only hope is to persuade the city of Atlanta to subsidize its dwindling operations, a move the Council appears unlikely to make before the station loses its lease next month and has to close its doors. And don't bet on Mayor Reed swooping in with a last-minute grant; the city scarcely funds its own in-house Channel 26, which broadcasts public meetings and press conferences.

Frankly, as much as we support the dissemination of alternative points of view, it's hard to make a case for the relevance, much less the necessity, of public-access TV in the Internet age.

We understand there is still a collection of insomniacs, shut-ins, and mostly older, low-income, and non-tech-savvy folks who adore People TV. We admire those who herald its blend of locally produced cooking shows, arts programming, church services, and booty-shaking videos that air late into the night.

But although the station once served as the only medium through which an average Atlanta resident without money, connections, or a telegenic face could reach a wide local audience, technology has since created many such avenues. These days, any high-schooler with a $100 digital camcorder and Web access can post videos online, start a vlog, or create his own YouTube channel — with the potential for reaching far more viewers than likely tuned into Channel 24 at its peak.

Put metaphorically, public-access TV is a pay phone in a cell-phone world.

Chief Executive Charlotte Engel has spent recent months preparing People TV to go dark: giving notice on its lease, letting staffers go, canceling insurance contracts, closing out grants. Even if the station got an 11th-hour reprieve, she says it could probably prove difficult, and costly, to ramp up operations again.

Engel has suggested that city officials allow a private entity — she won't say which — to take over Channel 24 in the interest of continuing to give Atlantans access to the public airwaves. This could be the best possible solution, a chance for People TV to be reborn in the mold of, say, WRFG-FM (89.3), the Little Five Points-based grassroots radio station that manages to air radically noncommercial community programming while ably supporting itself through private donations and public grants.

Now, that'd be something worth getting cable for.

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