15 October 1998 Edition

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Securing community airwaves

Tara O'Liaith describes how an Irish community group wants to set up a digital TV channel

Bruce Springsteen gave us an insight into American television when he released his single 57 Channels, a catchy parody of cable TV. Little did we know five or six years after its release that when we switched on our televisions we too could bemoan the fact that after we'd flicked through more than 57 channels, there's nothing on.

The digital television revolution is happening whether we welcome it or not. Welcoming it is one thing, understanding it is another. Basically, digital transmission is simply a new way of sending a higher quality and quantity of channels within the next fifteeen years. You can receive it, if you really want it, that is, through a box not unlike a satellite decoder. By adding a telephone line you can participate in quizzes and do your shopping without leaving your living room.

Naturally, there's profit somewhere, with the major cable companies and government being the players involved all wanting their piece of air space.

So where does Community Television come in?

No more than community radio competes with commercial radio, community telelvision doesn't claim to compete with mainstream TV. Then again, it doesn't have to. It may not hold as many viewers or look as slick, but it has its place.

It has been difficult in the past for community television activists to argue for local access TV on the air; the powers that be believed the RTEs and the BBCs were more than enough.

Cabeltel in the Six Counties rejected community groups' requests to use one of their forty channels. Seemingly, apart from the fact that they were using them all, ``no one would want to watch it''.

Taking a stand for community media everywhere is CMN (Community Media Network). Since 1993 CMN has been supporting the use of community media through networking and information activities, addressing empowerment and local development issues. As it stands Ireland is one of the least developed countries in the EU when it comes to recognition and support for community media. CMN believes there is a lot of room for improvement.

As soon as the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Sile De Valera anounced the government's proposals on digital broadcasting, in which there was no reference to community media at all, CMN decided to grab the opportunity, before anything was written in stone in the Dail, to begin lobbying to secure access to the airwaves.

They know, of course, that it won't be an easy task. Communities, organisations and media activists must begin the intensive lobbying of TDs.

RTE's Digital Television document states; ``As a result of the innovations in the way in which programing is created and used, digital television promises to be a powerful resource for personal and formal education, for community development in the years ahead and for equal access to economic and educational opportunity. However, it also has the potential to to manipulate, alter reality and redraft history unless employed within an established regulatory, cultural and popular framework''.

Brenda McNally, editor of CMN's magazine Tracking believes this must be the motivation for the lobbying process, before legislation is drafted.

If successful, and air space is guaranteed, the challenge of producing the programmes and ensuring that people are trained to take part is the task in hand for CMN.

The Project Building Community Media in Ireland is one of the ways CMN are facing the challenge. Their overall aim is to enable disadvantaged groups to develop the capacity to create and use community media as tools, therefore enhancing empowerment and practical improvements in economic and social opportunities.

The project offers involvement to organisations rather than individuals because success comes from new trainers and initiators returning to their communities to set up community initiatives in either radio, video or photography.

While the digital battle war rages on the battle for unhindered access to one or preferably more channels is being fought on a grass roots level, by communities, for communities.

Community Media Network can be contacted at 34 North Frederick Street, Dublin 1. Tel (01) 8783344/8783355, e mail: [email protected]

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1