CAN TV: Past, present, future?

Posted by Mitchell - November 2, 2023 (entry 759)

Today marks the one-year anniversary of this very newsletter -- the resurrected Chicago Media Action newsletter. All past issues of this newsletter may be found online.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Chicago Access Network Television, CAN TV -- the fleet of Chicago's public access cable television networks. CAN TV already had a celebration earlier this summer at the CAN TV studios, which I attended, and this month CAN TV will celebrate with a 40th anniversary gala.

We already discussed CAN TV some in my post from January 2023 about longtime Chicago alder Ed Burke (who by the way is going on trial next week to face racketeering and extortion charges), but this is about CAN TV proper.

I personally worked with CAN TV from 2002 to 2012, as a show producer, as a show guest, and as an activist in the policy sphere. CAN TV gave coverage and wider awareness in the days some twenty years ago when outreach was critical for activist efforts and the corporate media gave precious little to no attention regarding grassroots activist efforts (you know, we tried to stop a war which was galvanized by incendiary media coverage, and how did that turn out?). For issues most salient to me, CAN TV proved helpful particularly on two fronts -- coverage regarding the 2003 War in Iraq, and coverage regarding assorted media issues. With coverage in more than two-thirds of all Chicago television households, that helped widen awareness as I could attest by the many times I was recognized for being on CAN TV.

CAN TV graciously gave Chicago Media Action, even before the entity was known by that name, ample attention on its Community Forum series. I also worked as an organizing producer with Chicago Independent Television, the monthly television series of the Chicago Independent Media Center (a.k.a. Chicago Indymedia). Chicago Independent Television was an offshoot of grassroots media efforts surrounding protest coverage, in particular the protests against the 2003 War in Iraq. CAN TV proved to be critical to the show's existence, serving as a reliable outlet for cablecast, and was a key reason the show as long as it did (continuing its broadcast run over more than twelve years).

For me personally, public access television proved critical to my own personal political awakening. CMA, Chicago Indymedia, and I all benefited from CAN TV's generosity. And CAN TV had spent the same years fighting for its own future against the very cable television franchisees who were working to avoid having to pay franchise fees that comprised the bulk of CAN TV's funding. This was during the heyday of neoliberalism, and aggressive actions by cable TV companies came at a time when corporations had headwinds to reduce budgets for anything resembling public service. First, RCN (now Astound) and then Comcast were fighting to reduce or avoid fees, along with similar efforts underway on a national scale to hobble public access with the abysmal COPE Act.

I have done what I can to return the favor to CAN TV and to public access generally, to continue the fight and to pass the torch. Grassroot efforts organized by CAN TV and supported by Chicago Media Action for years helped stem the tide. CAN TV even was able to secure its own building and studios, which it did not have during the years I was most active with CAN TV.

CAN TV, despite its longtime and consistent support of grassroots and underserved communities, is still organized like a corporation, with a hierarchy of decision-making power and hierarchical division of labor. This disparity between structure and purpose came to a head in 2016 when workers at CAN TV organized a union and sought to bargain in good faith with CAN TV management for a contract.

I have to admit that I found it weird since I worked alongside political campaigns with CAN TV's longtime executive director, Barbara Popovic. The organizing effort at CAN TV was covered by Labor Beat, a television show about labor unions and labor organizing which (wait for it!) was broadcast twice a week on CAN TV. (Another aside: Labor Beat was organized by another CMA organizer and contributor, the late Larry Duncan.) CAN TV workers won the right to unionize and won a contract.

Around the time of the CAN TV workers' organizing efforts, a petition circulated online to give "voting control of CAN TV to its individual and non-profit organization volunteer members and donors". Specifically, the petition made three demands:

1. Retire the system of only allowing current Board members to nominate and elect new members and the Executive Director;

2. Revise the bylaws so that Board members and Executive Director shall be directly and democratically elected by the CAN TV community; and

3. Insure that the next permanent Executive Director will be installed under these new provisions, insuring that the CAN TV community is given direct, democratic input in the selection of any new, permanent Executive Director.

Unfortunately, the petition garnered a grand total of just 24 signatories.

If there had been a more successful effort in 2016 to push for democratization at CAN TV, CAN TV in 2023 might be different. And how are things going at CAN TV in 2023? Not great, at least according to a September 2023 article published by South Side Weekly, entitled "Who Is CAN TV For?". The lengthly article by Jason Flynn outlines manifold problems and concerns, including apparent suppression of contrary views, reduction of programming time and resources for nonstaff, and a steady trickle-up of money and resources for CAN TV higher-ups.

Quoting from the article: "In interviews with South Side Weekly, current and former CAN TV employees said they battled upper management for years and faced opposition when advocating for redress on health and safety issues, harassment, budgetary cutbacks, decreased station access hours, favoritism, and poor staff retention." The article is lengthy and very much worth reading.

And, as I mentioned at the start of this newsletter, there's a celebratory gala next month, complete with corporate partner sponsorship opportunities up to $50,000. I admit that I bought a ticket to the gala, because I wanted to support an organization that had supported me and supported causes I believed in -- particularly in an era where cable television is facing existential questions of its future from cord-cutting and the internet.

I also admit, I've got mixed feelings about attending the gala. On the one hand, I'm friends with a lot of folks at CAN TV (as I can attest from my visit this past summer), but at the same time I'm not heartened (to put it mildly) with the direction the station is going, particularly with the revelations published by South Side Weekly. There's also an additional factor here: CAN TV is a service overseen by the Chicago city government; Chicagoans (myself included) can raise concerns with our alder and city council. In any event, I will continue to fight for a grassroots independent CAN TV, and I encourage others to do so as well, just as CAN TV supported me and so many others.

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