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Broadcast PR:
Working with Community Access Television

Copyright Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

."...that's a great idea about CAT. Your primer is excellent."
VP Communications, Aircraft Owner's and Pilot's Association [AOPA] - largest pilot's organization in the world

Public relations professionals who are involved in broadcast public relations often overlook community access television as a vehicle for their clients' messages. Although community access television does not have the centralization or unified reach of broadcast and cable television, it can still be an effective channel for community-oriented messages and causes. However, public relations professionals need to be aware of how community access television works, and the differences in dealing with community access as opposed to conventional broadcast or cable television.

A unique by-product of the cable television systems in this country is what is known as community access television, or CAT for short. As part of the federal regulations concerning cable television, CAT is endowed by the cable systems that serve the community, and receives its annual operating budget from a small percentage of each subscriber's cable television bill. Obviously, communities with larger populations and multiple cable systems will have larger budgets, more staff and facilities. As a general rule, the cable subscribers in most communities are about 60% of the television households (as of December 2006). Urban areas (major cities) tend to have well-endowed and staffed CAT stations, whereas suburban communities may have joint facilities or none at all.

CAT doesn't function quite the same as commercial broadcast television, or for that matter "public television" (PBS.) The technology and broadcast fundamentals are the same (some CAT stations have equipment that is technically on par with their larger commercial cousins - it's just that the commercial stations have more of it and more paid professional staff.) CAT stations are staffed by a small cadre of television professionals - who often have many roles. Typically, a small station may have a Station Manager and a Director of Programming, and then perhaps a Community Outreach staff person. The rest are volunteers who have been trained in television production by the staff, and then crew the various productions.

The goals of CAT are two-fold: to provide as much coverage of community-oriented events as possible, and also to provide opportunities for the volunteer producer-members to create original programming on just about any topic that interests them. This orientation can provide a channel for publicizing a client's activities or executives (mostly their community involvement), and rather interestingly, an opportunity for public relations professionals themselves to come up to speed on television production. However, it is important for public relations professionals to understand how to approach CAT, and to also set both their own and their clients' expectations in terms of what the results may be.

Unlike commercial television, there is no ‘assignment desk editor' or strict hierarchy at the CAT station. Most of the production work is done by volunteers - but don't be mislead by that term - you are very likely to encounter experienced adults who are professionals in their other fields, and help out either out of sense of community involvement or because they want to produce original programming. At minimum, they are trained in basic television production, and in some cases, create "network quality" programming. (I recently sat on a national judging panel for CAT stations' election coverage and saw many examples of this.) Recent advances in digital camera technology and non-linear (computer-based) editing software have dramatically closed the gap between commercial television and CAT. As an aside, most of the program production at CAT stations takes place in the evenings or on weekends - and if you are going to work with them - both your schedule and your clients' have to conform to that reality.

What clients or causes would lend themselves to CAT? Obviously, community-oriented clients or causes would top the list. However, causes that have a national appeal can fit into this description as well. For example, PSAs on college savings programs, traffic safety and smoking cessation. Rather interestingly, virtually no PSAs are sent to one of the CAT stations that I'm affiliated with - which serves an affluent Boston suburb.

An example of community-based organization would be the local hospital. This particular hospital is a major volunteer and charitable activity for many of the community's business and political leaders. Each year, they run a week-long fund raiser that culminates in a black-tie affair. They also put of a cabaret show each year featuring the hospital staff and volunteers. The community access station produced a multi-camera production of that event that utilized their field production truck (yes, CAT stations do have field production facilities - one resourceful Massachusetts community even got the police force to split the cost and share their truck as a tactical emergency headquarters!)

The hospital also has a number of alternative-medicine programs, and has become the basis of an on-going medical segment on the monthly community video news magazine that the CAT station produces. With a client like that, a public relations firm would have easy access to the CAT station, and could offer may program-subject opportunities.

Another opportunity for public relations firms and professionals is to join their local CAT and get trained in the basics of television production. There are many advantages to this - first, you will develop much greater insights into the use of television for public relations. There is absolutely no substitute for the experienced gained in participating in actual television production activities. Secondly - you will have much greater credibility with CAT stations if you're a CAT producer-member yourself. You know their situation and talk their lingo. With 1,000 PEG (political, educational and governmental) stations in this country - that credibility goes a long way. You will also have greater credibility with commercial television producers and staff - you know the procedures and the terminology. When ever I go into a commercial television station or production facility - I'm a kid in a candy store - and the staff loves it because they know I understand and appreciate what they are doing - that attitude resonates with any professional. Any public relations professional who wants to make the investment can do the same - it just takes time, and maybe all of $50 a year in dues to your local community access station (note - usually membership is also open to any business in the community - so if your firm has offices in that community - you should be eligible to join)!

Here are some tips for public relations professionals who want to leverage the opportunities in community access television:


Alliance for Community Media -

The Global Village CAT -


For an overview on legal and other issues related to Do-it-Yourself business video production,
see the related article Do-It-Yourself Business Video - How to Avoid the Land Mines

For more detail on business video production, see the related article Business Video: How to Avoid Being a YouTubeTM Amateur

Jeffrey Geibel APR, LEED AP - is the Principal of Geibel Marketing and Public Relations. He is a member-producer and Technical Director (a technical director supports producers in a studio by actually producing their show) with Wakefield Community Access Television in Wakefield, Massachusetts. He has served in every television production crew position for events ranging from sports to election coverage and has produced numerous short programs and PSAs as a producer.

© 2009, Jeffrey Geibel - All Rights Reserved

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