By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A threat to local access

Robert Weisman reports in today’s Globe that two legislators are filing a bill to transfer authority over cable-television franchises from local officials to the state. The bill was filed by state Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, and state Rep. James Vallee, D-Franklin.

Weisman casts his story as one of more competition for the monolithic cable companies (make that company), but that’s only part of what’s going on. What’s in the crosshairs here is local-access cable programming — city council meetings, school plays, foreign-language programs, local talk shows and the like. The media-reform group Free Press has a wealth of background material on its Web site.

From the time that cable as we know it popped into existence in the 1970s, it has, with few exceptions, been a monopoly, with licenses granted by local regulators. The monopoly was a technological necessity: practically speaking, only one company could be allowed to string wires all over town.

In return for this monopoly, local officials would extract concessions such as special rates for senior citizens, upgraded communications for public safety and funding for local programming. It was a system that worked for everyone, and if local access doesn’t draw huge audiences, it nevertheless fills a real need.

But technology is changing by the day. Satellite TV is already an alternative, and satellite providers obviously don’t have to pay franchise fees. (You can’t get local-access programming, either — or even New England Cable News.)

Now comes Verizon, which wants to offer television programming over its phone lines to compete with cable, dominated by Comcast. Verizon wants to speed the process up by having the state, rather than local officials, sign off on its plans; Comcast, not surprisingly, likes things the way they are, since it wants to keep its local monopolies as long as possible.

If the bill to transfer regulatory authority from local communities to the state were to become law, there’s no reason to think that funding for local access would be eliminated — it would simply be administered at the state level. But we can see where this is going. With Verizon and Comcast competing, it’s easy to foresee the companies telling state regulators that they could charge less if only they didn’t have to pay those archaic local-access fees.

And, inevitably, television programming is moving to the Internet. Instead of 50 or 500 channels from which to choose, the number will theoretically be infinite — at least if we can preserve net neutrality. Local-access-type programming will move to the Internet, too, to be downloaded and viewed whenever you like.

In such a media environment, though, it’s not clear who, if anyone, should pay for local programming. Yes, you could sell advertising, and I imagine some entrepreneurial types will try. Or you could line up underwriting and pledges, following the public broadcasting model. But to carry the important but less-than-scintillating stuff that is the lifeblood of local access, you need some sort of guaranteed revenue stream to replace the local franchising fees.

You could accomplish this with a tax on Internet service or on Internet-capable TV sets, perhaps. But we have to start thinking about this now. If such ideas fall in the face of a no-new-taxes mentality, then public-interest media localism will suffer a heavy blow.

To follow this issue, keep an eye on MassAccess, the Massachusetts Chapter of the Alliance for Community Media, a national organization of local-access producers.

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  1. todd

    You mean there’d be no more Menino channel?!?!No loss there, really. But they’d better not get rid of Lolly’s Remedies! And what about Penny Dreadful!Advice to the legislature: be more concerned about getting legislative sessions back on tv instead of that crappy non-working web stream you’re trying to pass off as “publicly available.”

  2. Anonymous

    Looking at it from a strictly end-product perspective, I can’t see much public outcry on this one. I live in Worcester, and quite frankly, the public access is absolutely dreadful. The city council meetings are barely audible and poorly filmed; the citizen stuff is just downright bizzare; and the nightly news (which I’m not sure would be affected or not) is amateurish to the extreme (note to anchors–when you’re doing a story, edit out the part where you’re shouting questions from behind the camera). As for more internet-available stuff, I know the town of Douglas’ website has been offering board meeting video for a while–although the technology is funded through the town’s agreement with Charter. I actually think things like board and council meetings work against openness and public participation. I think too many people stay home and watch their local selectmen’s or council meeting on tv, rather than dragging their butts in to actually be there for the meeting and speak out publicly for or against policies, or ask questions (most municipal meetings have some sort of “public forum” section). Just because it’s not being shown on tv, doesn’t mean it’s not a public meeting. Like I said, if you were losing some essential treasure of local programming, I think there’d be more outcry. But telling me I can’t watch an hour’s worth of somebody’s home movies of their vacation in Greece last summer? No skin off my back.

  3. Peter Porcupine

    This was written up last July in the Cape Cod Times (sorry, no free link) in terms of being part of the infamous net neutality bill in Washington, which ASLO seeks to centralize these services at the state level.On Cape, we have many seniors who don’t want to drive after dark, and a significant disabled population. The Selectmen, planning board, finance committee, and so on are all televised and enjoy great ‘ratings’. Sometimes, people drive over to Town Hall mid hearing to speak!We also have a full array of political, spiritual and ecological shows on Cape, with programming which exceeds the networks. In fact, it’s our ONLY local programming, unless a Kennedy marries or gets in trouble.The public, government and school channels are crucial to local affairs in rural areas, and should remain under their control. Too bad for you if you don’t use this resource, but don’t shrug off those of us who depend on it!

  4. Anonymous

    Preserving the local franchising authority decision also insures that your household will be served by each of the wire providers. What Verizon does not commit to is offering full coverage in a community, unless pressed by each local Issuing Authority. Let’s say your house is on a street served by all underground utilities. Sorry, too expensive for Verizon to bury new cable to your neighborhood. Verizon’s dirty secret is that they also are engaged in a form of redlining…why have they pursued video licenses in the more affluent suburbs but not the more urban ones ? (Lynn being a notable exception, but that may be due to extensive telephone infrastructure which was in place there already)Comcast does offer it to all households because your existing franchise required them to do so, under existing franchise rules. If they are not required to wire, no local access programming from a competitor, and “competition” is limited.

  5. Hey FF, I'm still choiceless over here

    LOCAL GOVERNMENTS “PROTECT THE INCUMBANT’S INVESTMENT”“By managing the deployment as we do, we protect the incumbent’s investment in existing infrastructure, we protect the public from unnecessary disruption to private business and to their safe use and enjoyment of the public right-of-way, and we ensure that new entrants are provided with unfettered access in a reasonable and timely fashion, while ensuring that they comply with all safety requirements. This system has worked well for cable, traditional phone and other providers for many years, and is necessarily performed by the local government.”– Arvada Colorado Mayor Ken Fellman’s Testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet Wednesday, April 27, 2005 (Fellman is also a cable franchise lawyer and VP at NATOA)”PROTECT THE INCUMBANT’S INVESTMENT”, YOU BET THEY DO, SO WELL THAT YOUR CABLE BILL SHOT UP 93% INCREASE (1995-2005 FCC source)WHY DO THEY JUST JACK UP THE TV BILLComcast is raising the price of the average metro-area customer’s cable bill by 6.9 percent starting March 1, yet they held the line on prices for high-speed Internet and phone services. – RMNews January 2007THEY “PROTECT THE INCUMBENT’S INVESTMENT”, THAT MEANS NO COMPETITION. RESULT FOR YOU IS A 93% INCREASE IN YOUR CABLE BILL.Comcast Profit Triples – Reuters, 2/1/07How’s that for a double whammy – one week after Comcast announces a 7% increase for its captive cable customers, the cable monopoly announced record profits. And as they rake in the cash and their executives get richer and richer, they fight every effort by their employees to get fair wages and benefits – all the while milking customers for everything they got!As American Rights At Work found in a special report, wages for Comcast’s cable techs are a third lower than wages in traditional land-line telephone companies like at&t, where unions represent about three-fourths of the workers. Benefits are less generous and jobs are less secure, with annual turnover about twice as high.Worse, Comcast fights tooth-and-nail to keep unions out, or decertify them once their in. Northwest Labor Press reports of a 37-page Comcast anti-union management training document that stated: “Comcast does not feel union representation is in the best interest of its employees, customers and shareholders.”But it gets worse. Comcast is waging war against union employees – literally. During the AT&T days, unions made headway organizing in a handful of cities, including Beaverton, OR. But once Comcast acquired AT&T’s cable systems they began to systematically dismantle union shops…and show union workers the door. In Beaverton, Comcast vice president Curt Henninger made the company’s intentions crystal clear when he told commissioners in videotaped testimony: “I will tell you we are going to wage a war to decertify the CWA.”Cable is anti-consumer & anti-competitionLegislators must send them the message that their days of pillaging customers and exploiting workers are over.

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