Celebrating 25 years of Cambridge Community TV

kennedy & young

Old friend Robin Young of WBUR and NPR’s “Here & Now” and I were named honorary board members of Cambridge Community Television on Wednesday evening. The occasion was CCTV’s annual barbecue, held in the back lot at the Central Square facility. There’s more here (pdf).

The highlight of the evening came when Susan Fleischmann was honored for her 25 years at the helm of CCTV, which itself was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Local access cable operations are a key part of the independent media ecosystem.

I don’t live in Cambridge, so I don’t get to see CCTV. But it strikes me as an unusually rich and sophisticated operation, with three channels, lots of local programming and training sessions for youth and adults.

Many thanks to the folks at CCTV for their hospitality and their good work.

Photo by Wilder Bunke.

Revenge of the nerds

Paul McMorrow’s Weekly Dig account of yesterday’s Statehouse hearing on Verizon’s bid to do away with local regulation of cable television franchises is so entertaining that I’ll forgive him for deriding “local legislators and cable access nerds” as guys who wear “pants from Kohl’s.” Even though I’ve been known to wear pants from Kohl’s. (Not today, though. They’re from Bob’s.)

What undermines it, unfortunately, is characteristic Dig cynicism. To wit:

At the heart of it, this is a battle between two mega-corporations — Verizon and Comcast — over who gets to have a near-monopoly where. Comcast is fighting the legislation, and is reportedly helping to fund a massive, Yay local! ad effort to defeat it. Verizon, pissed that Comcast is muscling in on its phone market, is pushing back by getting all up in Comcast’s digital-TV grill. At the end of this fight, somebody’s gonna end up richer than they were before, and it’s probably not going to be you.

Thanks for the link, Paul. And I certainly agree with the proposition that Comcast’s motives are no more pure than those of Verizon. But at the moment, at least, it’s in Comcast’s corporate interests to keep cable franchising and regulation at the local level — and that’s what’s best for consumers and local media as well.

More coverage from the Globe, the Associated Press (by way of the Herald), the Eagle-Tribune, the Springfield Republican and State House News Service (via the MetroWest Daily News) can be found here.

No big deal

The Globe’s Carolyn Johnson reports that while Verizon tells the public that local franchising regulations are an obstacle to the glories of its fiber-optics cable television service, company officials are telling investors that the regulations are no big deal.

The threat to local access

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.

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.