How Cable Neglects Its ‘Red-Headed Step-Sister’

For 17 years, I’ve worked in an obscure media public policy world that only a telecom geek could possibly appreciate. That world is Public, Educational and Government (PEG) access television, or as I say, “the red-headed step sister of television.”  For the entirety of those 17 years, I have watched as members of the cable industry have tried everything they can to destroy PEG access television, to literally wipe it off the face of the earth, all the while claiming with bravado they mean no such thing and they mean no harm.

On many occasions I’ve been asked by policy makers, “Why do they want to do that?” To which I answer, “I guess they just don’t like us,” which sounds rather sophomoric all the way around, and it would be a petty complaint if we didn’t have tons of proof from emails, public testimony, behavior, and the spoken and written word.

The most recent manifestation of cable’s disdain for the public’s media came from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) during a solicitation by the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology for input regarding an upcoming White Paper on media.  The subcommittee members were looking for guidance from stakeholders to inform them as they set about rewriting the Telecommunications Act. 

The organization for which I work, American Community Television (ACT), provided feedback as to why we believe the regulatory framework that created PEG access television is still very relevant today.  Those regulations address the fact that cable uses public rights-of-way to deliver their products and enjoy their profits.  In other words, to make its money cable uses property that every taxpayer pays for.  As “rent,” cable pays local communities franchise fees, provides PEG access channels and provides support for those channels.

That regulatory structure, which historically was invented by the cable industry, has allowed PEG access television to flourish nationwide, creating about 5,000 local community channels and approximately 2,500 PEG access television operations.  These channels have created a democratic space second to none in television, with cameras in city council chambers, school board rooms, houses of worship, service clubs and nonprofits, as well as the individual spaces characterized by two chairs and a potted plant. 

PEG access is the “people’s television” and it disregards the editorial control of its commercially driven brethren to give a platform and a voice to everyone equally.  PEG is no small thing; it is a miraculous testament to freedom of speech and government transparency, which so many say they hold dear.

According to Communications Daily, the NCTA is “pressing” Congress (presumably through the White Paper response) to relieve its members of PEG obligations. The NCTA points to DBS and bemoans that providers in that space don’t have PEG obligations.  As arguments go, the NCTA should acknowledge that one is getting pretty long in the tooth; I’ve been hearing it for the 17 years I’ve been involved in this fight.

Hey, NCTA, if you can find one instance of DBS digging up our streets and sidewalks and occupying space in the public right-of-way, we’d love to see it.

I guess they just don’t like us.

Before the holidays, there were two instances that prove my theory to be true. One was an email from a Time Warner Cable government relations employee to a City Councilman in a Western state.  The employee told the councilman not to support legislation that ACT has been working on for five years, The Community Access Preservation Act (CAP Act), which would preserve and protect PEG access television.  In the email, the TWC employee said PEG support drives up prices, and satellite doesn’t have to provide PEG support, therefore PEG stifles innovation, growth and competition. 

Never mind that that’s a bald faced lie, it was yet another assault by the cable industry on democracy, free speech and government transparency. Our charge to the cable industry is, stop lying and come up with hard, cold evidence that PEG causes any of the harms you claim it does. (You won’t, because you can’t.)

Another instance of cable just not liking us happened in Northbridge, Mass., where Charter slammed the PEG channels from their positions on 11, 12 and 13 to 191, 192 and 194, in direct violation of the franchise agreement Charter has with the city.  The Charter government relations employee told the Northbridge city council that it had had no choice; the MSO had to do it in light of its digital transition, and nobody watches the lower channels anyway.  What the Charter employee didn’t tell the city council was that it was moving Home Shopping, Telemundo and the NFL Network into channels 11, 12 and 13.

Yet another assault in a list of assaults so long and varied I could not possibly list them here.  An assault on democracy, free speech and government transparency, by the industry that brings you Snookie, Honey Boo-Boo and Sex Sent Me to the ER as well as networks Russia Today, China Central Television and Al Jazeera America.

So, yes, cable really does want to wipe out community media and PEG access television.

I guess they just don’t like us.

Bunnie Riedel is executive director of American Community Television, based in Columbia, Md.