Verizon Targets Public Cable

Lyell Davies Aug 31, 2005

In September the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives will vote on legislation that will determine the future of Public, Educational and Government Television (PEG) in America.

If passed, House Bill H.R. 3146 and Senate Bills S.1349 and S.1504 will transform the American media landscape by allowing the telephone companies to get into the cable television business. In the process, these bills could strip communities across the country of valuable community television channels.

If adopted, the “Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act” (S.1504) and other pending legislation would free both telephone and cable companies from considerable regulation, and eliminate public-access TV and the educational and government TV cable stations that currently provide distance learning for youth, networks used by libraries and universities, informational programming and other services.

The Washington-based Alliance for Community Media describes these bills as a “national video disenfranchisement act,” one that will “undo years of progress in connecting the people of our communities to important local institutions and services.” Executive Director Anthony Riddle commented, the “loss of franchise agreements would immediately dismantle current community access activities. No more city meetings on TV, local educational programming or public-access TV.”

The telephone companies are aggressively lobbying for these bills, as they want to become the sole providers of voice, data, and video service. But they don’t want to agree to the same franchise agreements that cable stations have had to negotiate with local governments in the past.

Currently, cable television companies must negotiate a contract with the local community or municipality they serve. These contracts, called franchises, allow cable television providers access to the “public rights and ways” – in other words, the right to run cables beneath publicly owned streets. In return, the cable company must provide channel space for community programming and funding to assist with the production of this programming.  Riddle estimates that about 5,000 public-access TV stations around the country will be affected by these bills, as well as millions of viewers and approximately 1.2 million people who regularly volunteer at these stations.

If passed, these bills will substantially reduce the number of PEG channels that communities can obtain, strip communities of the funding to operate these channels and prevent communities and municipalities from managing their own “public rights and ways.”

Critics also contend that these bills will allow cable and other video delivery companies to “redline” communities. Entire neighborhoods – ethnic, low-income or ones with a high density of seniors –could be simply “left out” of the communications loop because they are economically disadvantaged and seen as unprofitable.

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