Advice poured in to the FCC Monday (March 9), the deadline for initial comments on a request to the FCC by backers of Public, Educational and Government (PEG) channels that the commission put those channels "on an equal footing" with basic commercial channels.
At press time, there were over 200 comments, including a number from various city officials.
According to Free Press's filing, that must include the following: "All cable systems must pass through closed captioning and secondary audio programs when provided by PEG content producers; must offer PEG content through the same interface and service tier as other basic cable channels, with no extra obstacles; and must deliver PEG content to the customer at the same video and audio quality as other basic cable channels."
The petition also requested that the FCC define AT&T's U-verse as a cable service subject to PEG requirements. In a related petition, four Michigan communities asking the FCC to rule on whether Comcast should have been able to move PEG channels to a digital tier there.
Free Press said the issues boiled down to the same problems: "Multichannel video programming distributors discriminating against PEG content, by forcing the content to be offered through a different interface, by creating additional hurdles or costs for those who wish to view the content, by taking steps that will reduce the viewership of the content, and, in the case of AT&T, by carrying the content at a lower quality."
Comments from AT&T and Comcast had not been submitted by press time, but the nation's leading cable operator, for one, has argued for moving PEG channels to digital, defending its plan before a concerned John Dingell (D-Mich.), then chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, last year.
Comcast pointed out that the satellite competition is already all-digital, but is not required to carry PEG channels at all. The company said competition requires that cable operators offer PEG channels in digital, and that if Comcast and other cable operators are "unduly restrained" it will weaken them competitively and, ironically, could actually harm PEG programmers if subscribers are driven to competition without PEG requirements.
Michigan PEG providers are concerned that viewers of the PEG channels would have to get a digital set-top box so see them after they were moved out of analog, but Comcast pointed out that as channels migrate to digital, all of its customers will need set-tops, DTV sets or some other device.
A number of remarks criticized the quality of the PEG channels it delivers, including the attorney general of Illinois, who said the U-verse service "does not provide PEG programming in a manner that is equivalent to commercial programming, since the transmission of all PEG programming on Channel 99 provides inferior access to PEG programmers and viewers, results in inferior display and functionality, does not provide channel capacity, and does not display local emergency alerts on broadcast system programming."
Conversely, the City of Columbus, Ohio, for one, had good things to say about the company's efforts to accommodate its PEG channels, as its cable administrator also praised the Internet delivery that others have suggested translates to lower quality.
According to Mary Nordstrom, Columbus cable TV manager, AT&T worked with the city on an Internet delivery system, and while she and others had misgivings about the quality of an Internet solution, she said the quality was comparable to other channels and that having PEG channels on one channel with a drop-down menu to navigate to them was not a problem.
"To date the City of Columbus has received no complaints regarding the method and manner by which the Columbus PEG channels are provided, she wrote, "the City of Columbus recognizes the AT&T personnel both locally and nationally for the cooperative manner in which they worked with us to provide the PEG channels to the
citizens of Columbus. We could not have asked for a better working relationship."
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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.