Public Access Television and Democratic Empowerment: Lessons for the Internet

Hans Klein
Institute of Public Policy, USA


The launch of new communications technologies is usually accompanied by bold predictions of positive social change. With the successive creation of telephone, film, radio, television, cable television, and now the Internet have come optimistic predictions of empowerment, enlightenment, and broad social benefits. Yet as each of these technological revolutions has receded into the past and its historical record of social change has become available for study, that record has frequently disappointed expectations.

Can anything useful be learned from such historical experiences? In particular, can the histories of previous technological revolutions yield practical insights that might be used to shape today's technologies? This paper explores such questions.

The paper examines the history of public access television in order to discover lessons relevant to today's Internet revolution. Both access TV and the Internet have been hailed for their ability to promote democracy and to empower citizens at the grassroots level. Today's expectations for the Internet remain to be proven, but public access cable television has a historical record that can be examined. Analysis of its achievements and disappointments may yield insights relevant to today's claims about the Internet.

The paper does the following: