When the euphemisms start piling up, the best thing to do is to take a closer look. The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy will hold a public hearing tomorrow on the Massachusetts Cable Choice and Competition Act. Well, gee, who could be against such a thing? In fact, the bill represents a massive assault on local media by the telecom giant Verizon. It’s also part of a nationwide campaign. The Web site SaveAccess.org is tracking the issue here and elsewhere.
The legislation, described in the Globe last Friday by Laura Colarusso and the subject of a Globe op-ed today by Nolan Bowie, would strip cities and towns of their right to regulate the franchising of cable television operations in their communities. Instead, all regulation would be carried out by the state. Such a change could result in less local programming — the government meetings, school plays, church services and community bulletin boards that don’t exactly compete with “American Idol,” but that form a vital part of the local media scene.
Because government-mandated funding formulas are based on the number of subscribers in a given community, larger cities such as Boston, Cambridge and Somerville have vibrant local public-affairs programming as well. Boston even has a daily newscast and a weekly political talk show, as I described in a story for CommonWealth Magazine earlier this year. State regulation wouldn’t necessarily result in the immediate demise of such funding mandates — but it would make getting rid of those mandates a whole lot easier.
So what’s going on? Traditional cable providers — now mostly bought up by Comcast — played by the old rules, winning approval on a town-by-town basis. Verizon, which seeks to offer cable television over its phone lines, wants to catch up quickly, which is why Verizon officials are complaining about the lengthy delays sometimes imposed by local officials. Comcast, at least for the moment, seeks to keep the current regulatory regime in place — after all, it already has the licenses it needs, so anything that makes life more difficult for Verizon gives it a competitive advantage.
In fact, there will be more competition and more choice for consumers in communities where Comcast and Verizon go at it head to head. The problem is that transferring the regulatory process from local communities to the state could well result in fewer mandates for cable providers to put money into local programming. It could quickly become a race to the bottom, as Comcast would rightly cry foul if Verizon were allowed to get away with making less of a commitment to localism.
The traditional cable providers are fighting just as hard as Verizon. Recently I noticed a commercial during a Red Sox game from a group called Keep It Local MA. It was a warm, gauzy appeal to keep cable television the way it is today. Its Web site looks like it was designed by Norman Rockwell. But if you do a “whois” on keepitlocalma.com, you’ll find that it’s registered to something called NECTA.
A little Googling quickly reveals that NECTA is the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association, “a six state regional trade association representing substantially all private cable telecommunications companies in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont” that “has represented the interests of the cable telecommunications industry before state and federal regulatory agencies, in the Courts, the Legislatures, and before the Congress of the United States.”
So yes, all the players are looking out for their best interests. It’s just that, in this particular case, the traditional cable industry’s interests happen to line up with those of consumers.
The time will come when there will be no logical rationale for regulating television delivery — it will all be Internet-based, and the closed cable systems of today will cease to exist. For now, though, if regulators stop requiring cable companies to pay for local programming, then it will disappear.
The legislation, Senate #1975, is online here. The media-reform organization Free Press offers online resources here. The principal sponsor of the bill is state Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, whose contact information is online here. The Massachusetts Muncipal Association, which opposes the bill, has a resource guide online here.
Correction: Media activist Chuck Sherwood writes to tell me that Keep It Local MA is more than an astroturf campaign: “Just to make sure you understand, even though KIL-MA is registered to NECTA, it is in fact a network of opponents to the Verizon Special Interest bill that includes, Mass Access, ACM-NE, Mass PIRG, the Mass Municipal Association and their Mayor’s Association, and behind the scenes Free Press.” So noted.