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Public Access TV possible in Wilmington but not likely without legal action, says City Attorney

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By Takkk (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

121 public access television channels operate across North Carolina – but not in Wilmington -- yet.  The City recently hosted a public meeting to discuss whether the up-sides outweigh the risks and costs.  As WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn reports, community members excited about public access shared ideas and raised questions -- but not before taking issue with the city’s presentation.

About 70 people clustered around tables in City Hall to hear from Assistant City Attorney Joe Betts. 

Cable provider Time Warner is probably obligated to furnish a public access channel if the City requests it, says Betts, but they’re unlikely to comply without a push.    

So the long and short of it is we believe we would probably have to file a court action in order to make it happen.”

That analysis didn’t sit well with members of the public who have spent years campaigning for public access.  One participant asked if anyone from the city could present the positive side.  Several others questioned why city officials insist legal action would be necessary.  

“I think it a little bit premature until you ask Time Warner Cable ‘Will you provide the public access channel?’ Then their response dictates the action of the City.  And until we ask that question, then we really don’t know.”

Attorney Betts says taxpayers should consider potential cost overruns -- with a state contribution of just $2700 per month.  And because the First Amendment protects free speech, the content presents its own set of challenges. 

“Yes, we must allow adult programming, anti-religious programming, anti-government.  Anything that’s allowed in the First Amendment would be allowed on this channel – not just would be – but must be.  We cannot deny access to anyone.” 

Steve Lee is a member of an advocacy group for public access TV in Wilmington.  And he says the major concerns of city attorneys, legal and financial liability, are overblown.

“Public access channels in 24 towns in this state have figured out how to deal with the content issue.  Public access programming is protected by the first amendment.  But you may not show obscene materials.  You may not libel or slander and you may not invade people’s privacy with the programming.” 

Obscenity, though, which is prohibited by the FCC and North Carolina general statutes, doesn’t include so-called adult programming.

“What you might call mature content – if it met the other programming requirements, then it’s possible that it could be shown.  And it would be late at night.”

Bishop Edward Williams, pastor of a Wilmington church, says part of the community’s apparent queasiness over a public access channel might also come from the perception that public access means a church-dominated channel.

What our mission has been recently is to basically change the face of what the community, from a psychological standpoint, views as public access, as, really church access.  And we’re trying to open up to them what the benefits are to the community.”

Those benefits, says Williams, include broadcasting high school sports, and affording greater outreach potential to area nonprofits.  

Just to think about true public access being afforded to the City of Wilmington – it just makes me feel like leaping for the benefit of all the organizations that are doing such great work through the years and haven’t had a venue, basically, to tell their story.”

Steve Lee says public access would be the great equalizer.

“The lowliest person could tell a story and get it on public access television.  And that’s the beauty of this.” 

City officials will compile all the public comments from last week’s meeting – adding in feedback from an online survey – and present it to City Council at the December or January meeting. 

Follow this link to the online survey.

For more on the City's position, visit their website