Policy

Is Cable’s Local Edge at Stake?

11/04/2005 7:00 PM Eastern

I’m getting a taste of small-town politics. For me, that meant heading out in the middle of a nor’easter on Cape Cod to see what was happening with the cable and telecommunications committee in Orleans, Mass., where I live.

The trek came about because the nation’s largest cable operator, Comcast Corp., is informing communities in which it holds franchises that it no longer wants to manage public-access programming channels. Comcast’s franchise is not up for renewal in Orleans until 2012, but the town already is entangled in the process.

Why? Because a neighboring town, Eastham, is negotiating with Comcast over the renewal of its franchise there. Orleans and Eastham are two of six towns that form the Lower Cape PEG TV operation that Comcast now manages. “PEG” stands for public, educational and governmental programming.

Orleans, Eastham and the four other Lower Cape towns are, for better or worse, joined at the hip to each other — and to Comcast. Local citizens produce the vast majority of their local programming out of an Orleans studio, overseen by a small Comcast staff.

The studio is housed in Comcast’s offices here, along with its headend and billing functions. It’s a charming little facility, nestled in a residential neighborhood where townies can pay their bills or make a program.

It’s as local as local gets. And folks flock to it, voluntarily producing and airing shows ranging from Democracy Now to Raging Grannies: Alive and Kicking, seven days a week.

Comcast is not alone in moving to get less involved in how such channels are operated. Charter Communications Inc., based in St. Louis, is also apparently mulling ways to get out from under this administrative nightmare. One possibility, according to Charter senior vice president David Andersen, is taking public-access fare off regular channels and offering it as on-demand programming.

Either way, public-access programming is not going away. The Federal Communications Commission ruled in 1984 that cable must provide the ability — and the funding — for communities to produce local programming as part of their franchise agreements. Cable operators have to pay for the local programming to exist. How they manage these operations is what’s at stake.

Comcast wants the PEG TV operation to be “self-managed,’’ as operator spokesman Spero C. Canton has termed the process of letting local communities decide how much time is devoted to public programming and what that fare will be.

To help out, Comcast has pledged administrative support during the transition, whatever that entails.

For Orleans, that could mean erecting its own studio in Town Hall. Its goals are lofty: In addition to continuing to support the PEG channel the six towns share, Orleans, with its 4,165 cable subscribers, wants another channel solely dedicated to the town’s events.

You can see the problems. But you have to ask: Is it a good business move for Comcast to distance itself from the town’s local TV operations?

Local broadcasters have long known the power of cozying up to their communities and politicians. That’s why they got free analog spectrum decades ago, why they won a second digital channel and get lots of local political ad dollars. Broadcasters, unlike cable, have done an awesome job of schmoozing politicians to their advantage.

Cable, by contrast, pays towns franchise fees to serve their communities and a large percentage of those fees are allocated to funding local PEG channels. I can certainly understand why operators would rather apply their energies to more lucrative business opportunities like launching in-home or mobile phone services. They will generate profits, while public access costs not just money, but time.

But it’s a mistake for cable operators to abandon a competitive edge they have over satellite operators. Only cable can act locally and become a part of the communities it serves. Since the operator has to pay for public programming anyhow, why not create good will for your brand along the way?

Already the six Cape Cod towns appear to be circling the wagons, gearing up to extract higher franchise fees from Comcast as the negotiations start to take form.

Frankly, in their earlier franchise discussions, some of the towns left a lot of money on the table. For instance, Orleans, only got a 2.75% franchise fee, not 5%, when it did its deal back in 2002.

Good public access can be good public relations. And in communities like Orleans, that will produce more customers. Isn’t that better than ponying up another 2.25% just to give up an administrative headache?

Or maybe I just have too much time on my hands. You decide. Write me at MPCable@aol.com and let me know what you think.

September