June 23, 2011

Documentary Film Pioneer Gordon Quinn Tells Cable Commission: 'CAN TV's Integral to City's Media Matrix'

The following is from public comment given by Kartemquin Films co-founder and CMA member Gordon Quinn at the June 14th meeting of the Chicago Cable Commission.

I’m Gordon Quinn, co-founder of Kartemquin Films, which makes documentaries, like our most well-known film, Hoop Dreams. When I helped to start Kartemquin forty-five years ago, I was motivated by a desire to connect people to others’ lives and experiences by telling real and compelling stories. This has been my life’s passion.

For the same reason, I’m passionate about CAN TV, and helped form the Committee for Media Access. CAN TV gives people a chance to share their experiences and knowledge, creating bridges between Chicago’s diverse communities. Some folks say the Internet makes access television obsolete. This is wrong-headed not just because TV remains an incredibly popular medium, and not just because 40% of Chicagoans remain unconnected to high-speed Internet. But also because we still need affordable training, support, and equipment to make good video for any platform, and this is only equally available at a public access center like CAN TV. To date, CAN TV has trained 10,000 people in video production skills. Many people who get their start at public access go on to do work elsewhere in Chicago’s media matrix—some even find their way to Kartemquin! For these reasons, I regard CAN TV as one of the City’s top civic accomplishments in my lifetime.

And it didn’t happen by accident. I remember this, because I participated in founding CAN TV thirty years ago. At the time, I was a media activist, working with a huge, diverse coalition that partnered with the City to write the best cable law in the country. We focused on two principles: first, community channels should be funded by companies that use our rights of way, second, that the public’s channels must be free-standing, that is, managed independently by the community. The outcome was CAN TV.

With City and company support, CAN TV has developed into a trusted institution in Chicago. Two years ago, I was invited to be part of a panel convened by the City with Chairman Genachowski of the FCC on broadband technology and small business. I emphasized that when thinking about how any mass media technology is constructed and managed, we should take the lessons from CAN TV. CAN TV’s inclusiveness has cut across lines of race, class, and geography to strengthen the capacity and skills of community members and groups to communicate using video. To that end, I stressed the role of regulation in ensuring the same accessibility and inclusion of the public in broadband.

With the City’s current long-term refranchising of cable companies, we find ourselves at a historic crossroads for public access. Other cities have chosen polar-opposite directions.  The City of New York is standing firm for public access in all of the boroughs, with cable deals that ensure increased support and inclusive technology.  Dallas, on the other hand, abandoned the community and shut down its public access station.

When it created CAN TV, the City established the right of public participation in television. It was a great idea, and it has led to a great public institution, of which the Chicago can be rightly proud. With cable refranchising, beginning with RCN, the City can affirm the founding vision and values for CAN TV. I urge the City to do so, by ensuring that cable franchises provide strong community benefits agreements that protect and develop the public’s channels for the next generation of Chicagoans.

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