Raise your hand if you've ever attended a city council meeting. OK, now raise your hand if you've ever watched one on TV. I'm guessing there were more hands raised for the virtual experience of local government, which is perfectly understandable. Most of us can't block off three hours a week to keep abreast of those small but important issues of local governance. Thank goodness for government access television, which, like public access TV, Time Warner provides us only because it has to. But if legislation in Congress passes, there could be only one government access station for the entire state of North Carolina. Local democracy would no longer be televised, and you can kiss cable access television goodbye.
The Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act would eliminate local control of cable television, video, broadband and possibly phone service. Introduced by Senators John Ensign and John McCain, this bill creates one national cable franchise to replace all existing local agreements.
The way it works now, companies like Time Warner have to negotiate with each individual city or county for the right to use the public right of way--those underground cables. The city can ask for money and access as part of its franchise agreement. That's why many towns have their own public access TV stations. Not only would cities be left out of the loop, the legislation would also limit the fees those companies have to pay. And as for giving back to the public for using our property? The very idea evaporates.
What does that mean? It means public access channels in the Triangle would be history. Chad Johnston, station director for Chapel Hill's public access TV station, says this bill would essentially eliminate local programming as well as local control over cable rates. "These video systems are digital, so they're going to offer gobs and gobs of channels," he says, "but there would be no space set aside for local programming within that."
Federal law passed in 1984 requires cable providers to offer public, educational and government access (often called PEG) in exchange for using public facilities. This bill limits PEG to four stations per state. "As it looks now, this would be a disastrous bill for the PEG system," Johnston says. "We would no longer have space, and if there were space allotted, it would be so hard to negotiate to get access to it, not to mention expensive." Even if Chapel Hill's leaders set aside money to keep those stations alive, they'd have to persuade the Federal Communications Commission to grant them access. "We would all have to fight tooth and nail. I don't know how that would work. What city manger is going to want to spend the time to lobby for a government channel with the FCC? And on the other hand, what resources does the FCC have to know about your local municipality or the landscape here?"
The People's Channel is a nonprofit run on a budget of $160,000, paid for by the town with money from its franchise agreement with Time Warner. But franchise agreements pay for much more than that. Raleigh, Carrboro and several other communities that make up the Triangle J alliance negotiated a group agreement with Time Warner that allows them to use more of the money on fundamental needs such as police, fire department, and parks and recreation. "That's a huge chunk of money that the city would just lose," Johnston says.
In fact, early analysis of the bill estimates it would cost local governments across the country $3 billion per year in lost revenue from cable and telephone companies.
Loss to the local community is harder to measure. Public access TV may be marginal in terms of ratings, but it provides airtime and education to anyone who wants it. In Chapel Hill, People's Channel produces 35 local shows, including It's Useless Wooden Toy Time (all about skateboarding) and In Praise of Age, which focuses on seniors.
The station also offers some of the cheapest courses around in digital animation, Final Cut Pro and Photoshop. "A lot of what we're doing is to try to reinvent what it means to be a public access station, because all this technology is converging," Johnston says. "We'll be sort of a dinosaur if we're just teaching video courses. What we're trying to do is convert people from passive receivers to active agents."
The public access battle is one small part of the shakedown created by new technology. The convergence of so many services through the co-ax or the phone line--digital cable, DSL broadband, voice-over-Internet protocol (VOIP) which provides cheap long distance via computer, even experiments with broadband Internet over power lines--means the landscape is changing, and old regulations just can't keep up. The biggest players in the market--the cable and telecom companies--are rewriting the old rules. A new Telecommunications Act is certain to emerge in the next couple of years. This bill is a taste of what's to come.
The last telecom act passed in 1996 with almost no public awareness or debate. Not many people were thinking about media consolidation back then, and the Internet was new. Then came Clear Channel's acquisition of hundreds of radio stations, the disastrous AOL/Time Warner merger, and an unprecedented consolidation of media companies.
"They're framing this almost as a consumer advocacy bill," Johnston says. "'Less regulation, we'll let the market fix it.' But less regulation over cable has meant the rates have skyrocketed in the past decade. They say there's fair competition in North Carolina, but if you look at cable rates, they've not dropped."
Back in March, the FCC stripped 32 local governments in North Carolina of the power to regulate rate hikes after Time Warner convinced the agency that satellite TV provides enough competition in those areas to let "the market" control the cost of cable TV. Keep in mind that cable rates have risen at three times the rate of inflation across the country since 1996. So much for competition.
Bob Sepe was hired as a consultant by 28 of those local governments, including several in the Triangle, to negotiate franchise agreements with Time Warner. "The cable operators want as few obligations and responsibilities as possible, and the local governments want some public accountability," Sepe says. He calls access channels "electronic green space." If local control is taken away, he says, "then the possibility of local needs being met is really in serious jeopardy, because who are you going to complain to? Your local congressman? The FCC?
"We need to preserve these venues," Sepe says, "because it serves the culture and protects our democratic form of government."
Johnston says the most important way to fight the Ensign legislation is to act local: Contact your mayor, city council members and county commissioners. "I think the municipalities really need to be brought up to speed on this," he says. For a sample letter and more information on The People's Channel, check out www.thepeopleschannel.org.
The Ensign/McCain Broadband Investment & Consumer Choice Act, also known as S-1504, was introduced on July 27. Check it out on thomas.loc.gov. An analysis of this legislation is available at www.varnumlaw.com/services/cable
Some of the best explanations of the broader issues are at Free Press ( www.freepress.net ). Road trip The Future of Music Coalition is gearing up for its annual conference in September in Washington, D.C., and while it's not South By Southwest, it's a hell of an opportunity to meet people who are concerned about how copyright law, media consolidation and digital technology affect indie music. It's also a chance to bend the ears of Washington hotshots and people from the record industry. There are discounts and scholarships for students and musicians. Check out www.futureofmusic.org for all the details. If you're planning to go, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.