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 redheaded 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, that they mean no harm.

Why do they want to do that? To that I say, “I guess they just don’t like us,” which sounds rather sophomoric … and it would be a petty complaint if we didn’t have tons of proof.

The organization for which I work, American Community Television (ACT) … [believes] the regulatory framework that created PEG access television is still very relevant today. … Cable uses public rights-of-way to deliver their products... As “rent,” cable pays local communities franchise fees, provides PEG access channels and provides support for those channels.

That regulatory structure … 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.

But the National Cable & Telecommunications Association is “pressing” Congress … to relieve its members of PEG obligations [and] bemoans that satellite-TV providers in that space don’t have those same obligations. … Hey, NCTA, if you can find one instance of satellite 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.

[Two other] instances … prove my theory. [A] Time Warner Cable government relations employee told a city councilman in a Western state not to support legislation that ACT has been working on for five years, The Community Access Preservation Act, which would preserve and protect PEG access television. In an 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.

[Separately], in Northbridge, Mass., 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. A Charter government relations employee told the city council … the MSO had to do it in light of its digital transition... 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.

So, yes, Virginia, 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.