Does your city have a Public, Education and Governmental (PEG) channel on its cable system? A PEG channel is a channel procured by a city’s franchise agreement with its local cable company for the purpose of broadcasting PEG video content.

Most people’s exposure to PEG channels represents a split-second glimpse as they channel-surf. The following is a story of one small town’s aspirations to rejuvenate its PEG channel – with the ultimate goal of achieving the coveted “favorite channel” spot.

There are several typical examples of PEG channels out there, with the norm involving scrolling text over some kind of changing color background. Often, the equipment that runs these channels is antiquated.

In Waverly, Iowa, the equipment manufacturer responsible for the scrolling text display didn’t exist anymore, and just upgrading to something similar would have cost nearly $18,000. So, the city’s cable commission, mayor and leisure services director began brainstorming about what could be done with the PEG channel. This included looking over the city’s franchise agreement and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) documents ( see sidebar). They also asked the local cable operator – MediaCom – if it had any suggestions or ideas.

The Current System

Waverly’s current use of its PEG channel wasn’t limited to just scrolling text; it already was supplementing content with live feeds of its monthly city council meetings – essentially interrupting the scrolling text (via a simple automated A/V switcher) when they came online and then reverting back to the scrolling text upon the conclusion of these meetings. Broadcasting city council meetings had been a hit with residents, particularly the older people who have limited mobility. But how could Waverly build on that? The answer was right under its nose.

The initial idea actually came from Waverly’s chairman of the city’s Cable Commission, who had had some experience with cable companies. He recalled how important local broadcast channels are to cable systems, not only as a differentiator from satellite services that often don’t carry all these channels but also the emphasis on locally relevant content to viewers. PEG is part of this emphasis as well, albeit the use of these channels probably is not the differentiator the original founders of the channel envisioned.

PEG content also isn’t something cable companies currently want to grandstand; this is evident because many operators have moved these channels up into higher and less-frequented channel numbers. Note that, in the case of services like AT&T U-verse, PEG-channel access is perceived as such a rarity that it requires the user to start an application to access such content; PEG channels are not directly accessible via a standard channel, making them much less frequented. Regardless, the capability is there for the taking – at least for those willing to put forth the effort. For the city of Waverly, the plan was to start simple.

On the outset, some suggested the town leaders just record some events on video and then play these back when it was convenient. While this is easier to do than broadcasting live events, the concern was that if the town went down that path instead of making live events happen first, its efforts would be in vain because the initial product wouldn’t have any sizzle to kick-start the interest level. The other benefit of broadcasting live events is that the city wouldn’t have to provide a program guide; these events already would have been publicized to the public by other means, while delayed broadcasts would require Waverly to post the times it intended to broadcast recordings, which isn’t an easy task. But where would the content come from?

Mining For Programming

The Waverly City Council and its allies has several different venues from which to pull content for its enhanced PEG channel:

Schools

Waverly’s school system is bursting with lots of great content just waiting to be harvested, including its terrific music programs, theater, sports and other events. The city already is seeing potential schedule conflicts just trying to fit it all in.

High-school sports have always had a large following and, in the case of some communities, it’s all there really is. Most recent examples include the heavy interest and following of Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, who all ascended to professional sports directly from high school.

Waverly’s high-school sports programs have been on a tear of late; its wrestling team has won three straight state titles, and its basketball team has made several trips to the state tournament (the last one on an undefeated season). These events are attended loyally by Waverly residents who follow the high school’s teams – even if they don’t have children in the school.

One big concern voiced by the schools regarding provision of live video coverage was ticket sales, on which they greatly depend for sports-program funding. While the city believes people that attend these games will continue to want to attend them (and pay for tickets), its target audience isn’t these people but rather those who can’t get there.

And there is another advantage to working with the schools: They are full of willing and able bodies thirsty to learn about broadcasting, and Waverly now is looking for ways it can put this talent pool to work.

Radio

KWAY, Waverly’s local radio station, also has been a source of PEG content. KWAY broadcasts all of Waverly’s football and basketball games, so the city’s idea was to take this great play-by-play content and marry it with a live video feed. It then would be routed into the PEG channel.

KWAY also is looking to cover other happenings within the town, including its nationally recognized Horse Sale; its increasingly popular Exotic Bird Swap; and other events like Heritage Days, the Art Walk, etc.

The Newspaper

Waverly is fortunate to have its own local newspaper, the Waverly Democrat. In an effort to further involve the paper, the city and the newspaper staff are working together to find ways to include Waverly Democrat content, including all kinds of news reporting and special-interest stories. These could be broadcast on the PEG or, alternatively, viewers could see the broadcast on the newspaper’s Website.

The scheduling of non-live events is something the city hasn’t quite figured out yet. It has considered posting a schedule on local TV stations to promote upcoming content or claiming some space in the local newspaper and on local Websites to list upcoming broadcasts. It continues to struggle to find the right method or mix of notification, as not all Waverly viewers are Internet savvy or would think to look in the newspaper for a broadcast schedule.

Moving Forward

Waverly’s plan is simple – plant, fertilize, and harvest (it is a farming community, after all) the joining of the schools, radio station, newspaper and city content in an effort to provide a community view of Waverly for its residents to keep them informed and involved. By definition, the PEG cannot be a commercial, for-profit entity, so it is unique to other sources of content out there that are supported by advertising. This status allows Waverly’s PEG to really stay focused.

In the future, it is conceivable Waverly could generate enough content and interest to independently broadcast this content over the air and on the Internet so everyone could tune in, not just cable subscribers.

Keep this in mind: “Local” doesn’t always mean content happening in your city. It could be three counties away. In fact, Waverly’s closest local channels, KWWL and KCRG, run a story about Waverly or its residents maybe once a year. That’s why the city council is thinking in terms of “community content” rather than “local content” – focusing on happenings in the community within perhaps a 15-mile radius of Waverly.

Something that is becoming crystal clear is the value of a PEG channel to the community. To think of all the untapped PEG channels out there gathering dust, a lot could be done to help them improve. All a jurisdiction needs is a little creativity and some community involvement, and then sky’s the limit.

Bruce Bahlmann chairs the Cable Commission in Waverly, Iowa. Contact him at bahlmann@bigfoot.com.

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