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Small Screen: Under the guise of making cable more equitable, a proposed bill may end the tiny reign of community-access media.

All-Access Pass

Public-access TV threatened by new bill

By Michael Shapiro

Public-access television stations, those local channels where you can watch a city council meeting or a program made by your neighbor, could die an instant death if a bill making its way through Congress passes. Advocates of U.S. Senate bill 1504 say it will enhance competition in the cable industry, but opponents fear it will be the end of community media. Other provisions of the bill could eliminate local control of cable television.

Just to be clear: what's threatened are public-access stations such as channels 69 through 72 on Comcast's Santa Rosa cable, not PBS stations like KRCB-22. Though these channels don't attract hordes of viewers, they play an integral role in the community, giving local residents the opportunity to make a program on topics ranging from cultural issues to assistance for new immigrants.

Currently, cable companies have to pay cities up to 5 percent of their revenues. This is "rent" for the land where their cable lines run, a fee for the rights of way. This money is the only source of revenue for community-access stations nationwide. With an Orwellian spin, the bill is called the "Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act" and is sponsored by senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and John Ensign, R-Nev. If it passes, cable companies would not have to support public-access television with these fees or provide them channels in their lineups.

"It's like shutting off the tap the day it's enacted; that's terrifying," says Laurie Cirivello, executive director of the Community Media Center of Santa Rosa, which manages the city's four public-access stations. "There would be no way to support public-access television." Cirivello says if the bill passes, Comcast could replace the four public stations with, for example, four home shopping channels. But even if the company didn't take them off the air, the public-access channels couldn't operate without funding. Though local municipalities could still collect some fees from cable companies, this money could only be used to maintain the cables and rights of way, not to support programming.

"I think this is the biggest threat that we have ever had since public access was created over 30 years ago," said Anthony Riddle, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media. Speaking on Democracy Now, which is carried on public TV and radio stations, he added, "The bills that are out there right now, in the name of competition, actually are there to allow the telephone companies to come in and compete with the cable companies, but would in effect create a duopoly. If you think about the idea of your home having two wires coming into it, and that all information going into and out of the home are on those two wires, and that they're controlled by a couple of companies, maybe three companies or four, that have all of the same interests, then you're looking at something that's going to alter the face of our society as a whole, not just media. And it's not science fiction. This is actually on the verge of happening."

So if this is society-altering, why haven't we heard more about it? Riddle says it's because the networks and newspapers that should be reporting on these issues have a financial stake in media consolidation.

The bill would also remove local authority of cable agreements and national franchises, which may mean that consumers would have to complain to the FCC if they had a problem with local cable service. Phone companies appear to be backing this bill, Riddle says, because they want to provide video services combining voice, data and video. But companies like SBC don't want to pay the franchise fees that cable companies have paid.

Ostensibly, the bill is designed to level the playing field, as voice, video and broadband converge. But Riddle argues that pulling the plug on public access does nothing to increase competition, and that the cost, about 25 cents per month per subscriber, is negligible. Cable companies "owe the public this," Riddle says. "This is our land."

Cirivello says, "You can bet if the franchise fee went away, your bill wouldn't drop a dime." The bill could also make "cream skimming" legal, she says. In other words, a cable company like Comcast could provide service in the wealthy areas of a city where business is most lucrative but not in poorer areas. "We're moving toward a society in which rich people have access [to cable, broadband, etc.], but poor people don't," she says. Other public-access stations operate in Petaluma, Healdsburg, Napa and Novato, and these could vanish as well.

Though local Internet service providers may not be affected by this bill, Dane Jasper, president of the California ISP Association and founder of Sonic.net, is troubled by the bill. "We need to recognize that [telecommunications companies] want to deliver a unified platform over a state or region with no local content," he says. "As members of the local community, we have real concerns--where does the city council meeting get aired?"

The Bohemian sought comment from Sen. McCain's office and from a Comcast spokesperson, but neither returned our calls.

The last major telecommunications bill, passed in 1996, included language to "assure that cable communications provide . . . the widest possible diversity of information sources and services to the public." Such language is absent in this new bill. Says Nancy Dobbs, the president and CEO of KRCB, "The trend is towards consolidation of media. The avenues for getting into the household are shrinking."

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From the October 26-November 1, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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