The Early Evolution of Public Access Television in New York City

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The image of Public Access Television in the minds of most people has been distorted over time. Tabloid TV segments and magazine articles often lingered on the controversial and the absurd and skewed the understanding of what Public Access represented in the evolution of free speech and community media. The reality is that Public Access Television was the first popularized form of electronic free speech readily available to most Americans. Any resident of a municipality within a cable TV franchise had the opportunity to produce and distribute their own television programs, free of censorship or mediated interference, for little or no cost. As long as it did not break the law, you could view it on your cable Access Channels. Public Access in New York City, and specifically Manhattan, proved to be one of the epicenters of free speech television in the United States. The late 1970s and 1980s proved to be a tumultuous time, as the technology and architecture of mass media raced forward. As is often the case, policies and regulations lagged far behind, but Public Access programming in Manhattan broke boundaries and served as a microcosm of the societal and cultural change that urban centers across America were experiencing. It also serves as a model that can be applied to digital and social media today, on issues such as censorship, corporate interference, new technologies, and regulation. All these issues were first manifested in the early days of Public Access TV in New York City.