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.