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Local Franchises Get Local Support

New York— The nation’s biggest phone companies have excellent lobbyists in Washington, working hard to see to it that their clients don’t have to go city by city, across the country, negotiating entry into the video business the way cable companies had to do it.

The cable companies, not wanting any such legislation to make life easier for their telephone rivals, have some interesting allies who’ve taken their side. On the steps of City Hall in Manhattan last week, those allies included organizations that:

  • Aid sweatshop workers in Chinatown;
  • Assist apartment renters in disputes with landlords;
  • Provide training to city residents eager to learn the TV-production business.

Representing the last category were officials from the city’s public-access TV corporations, and they brought all three categories together by providing a platform for documentary programs and call-in information shows that potentially reach millions of cable-TV watchers.

Michael McKee, associate director of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition, was among about two dozen people who attended the City Hall rally last Wednesday, while cameras from several public-access shows and Time Warner Cable’s New York 1 News network rolled.

For about nine years, McKee said, he has hosted a call-in program for apartment tenants on Thursdays. “We do anywhere from eight to 15 calls a segment, in an hour,” he said, with the main variable being how complicated the caller’s issue is. “Then on Fridays and even Monday and Tuesday, we get 10 to 15 calls to our office, from people who’ve been watching.” His show isn’t Nielsen-rated, but he certainly hears directly from his viewers. And he’s afraid national franchising will mean his show, Tenants & Neighbors, gets canceled.

City council members who backed an anti-national-franchising resolution that passed, 50-0, the same day as the rally had more than public-access TV on their minds — namely, the $81 million per year that Time Warner Cable, Cablevision Systems Corp. and RCN Corp. pay in fees under the franchise contracts that provide for the 16 public, education and government channels in the city’s five boroughs, plus other perks like an institutional communications network.

“We at the local level are getting caught up in the middle” of lobbying campaigns by cable and phone companies, Council member Gale Brewer, a Manhattan Democrat, said. She also complained that national franchising legislation would mean New Yorkers who had a cable complaint would have to call the Federal Communications Commission instead of the city’s “311” government-information number.

Brewer pointed to growing opposition to HR 5252, the national franchising bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), from groups like the National League of Cities as evidence that localities weren’t about to give up their current rights quietly.

Public-access TV advocates spoke knowledgeably about differences between Barton’s “Communications, Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act” (COPE) and the telecommunications reform bill, S. 2686, from Sen. Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska). They’re hoping that differences between those two bills will mean the effort stalls, especially in the Senate. “Our chance now is to try to slow it down in the Senate,” Betty Yu, outreach coordinator for Manhattan Neighborhood Network, said.

“The fact is, if the cable companies weren’t required to give something back to the communities, they probably, in all likelihood, wouldn’t do it,” BRONXNET executive director Michael Max Knobbe said when asked if public access might not survive national franchising.

Network neutrality also came up, translated by this group to mean preferred access granted to higher-paying customers of broadband services, rather than the usual definition of certain content providers paying more to be assured of reaching broadband customers (the kind of thing Mediacom’s Rocco Commisso was talking about last week). Buildout requirements — the possibility of excluding low-income neighborhoods from advanced services — was another concern.

Cable companies have backed some grassroots anti-telco lobbying efforts, but no cable people were in evidence at City Hall. Yu of MNN said some individual cable executives have voiced support for their efforts at public hearings.

But last Wednesday’s event was an example of local groups that needed no separate funding to get local elected officials on their side. It just remains to be seen how much collective influence actions like the City Council’s unanimous vote last week will have on heavily lobbied representatives in Washington.