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Public access to cable

Public access is a comparatively recent term in the world of electronics - but it is a term cable TV consumers need to be aware of, because it may play a very important part in the viewing habits of all of us in the future.

Public access is, simply, free and easy citizen use of cable communication. Many a cable franchise - the deal a cable company makes with a community - states precisely how you and I must be assured the right to participate in this new medium. The FCC is also encouraging public access.

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One group actively taking part in making certain that public access remains an important right on the agenda of democratic freedoms is the Communications Media Center at New York Law School. Informal seminars have been organized by its director, Prof. Michael Botein, who has served as cable and access consultant to many cities involved in franchising local cable companies.

The Communications Media Center, paying attention to its own advice to citizen groups, is now using New York City's public-access opportunity to present its own discussion program, aimed primarily at lawyers and specialists in the cable field, but of great interest to anybody who wants to play any role at all in the cable age.

''Communications Law Review,'' with Janel Radtke as host, is a program the Media Center will make available to any local cable system that requests it. The show I screened the other day focused on public access - what it is, how it came about, how you can take part in it. Guests were Mr. Botein and Ben Park, a professor at the New School for Social Research, an early proponent of public access.

It's a timely show - you can call or write your local cable company president and suggest it be acquired. (You may be surprised to learn that, according to Professor Park, Reading, Pa., has the most advanced public-access programming in the country, complete with two-way capability. It is run mostly by senior citizens.)

At lunch, Professor Botein spoke about the various new developments in the world of cable. He pointed out that we are now in the midst of a completely new deal for many current cable franchise holders - the necessity to file for renewal. In some instances where the cable company has not done a good job, cities are opening up bidding again.

And for the first time in perhaps 10 years in some places, there is competition for renewal, because those franchises may be worth many millions of dollars shortly. Meanwhile, franchise holders feel it is to their benefit to spend as little as possible now in preparation for the days when the profits will roll in. But from the other side - from the customer's point of view - service is what is important.

SMATV (satellite master antenna systems) is a term you may be hearing about more often. Many large apartment complexes, such as Co-Op City in the Bronx, New York, are investigating the possibility of setting up their own direct satellite transmission systems and selling the service directly to tenants rather than giving out the profitable cable franchise. This would make the normal areawide cable franchise much less profitable. There is a fierce battle brewing between SMATV and cable systems. As a consumer it will pay for you to watch closely.

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And that brings up the fact that there is a great need for a well-funded national cable consumer organization that will safeguard the communications rights of private citizens. There are regional and national versions in existence today. But all of them find it impossible, without major funding, to maintain vigilant policing of the field.

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