When David fights Goliath, everybody has a rooting stake in the underdog. But what happens when one Goliath opens a slingshot of whoop-ass on another? For many people, it’s hard to work up much outrage for the current battle royale on Capitol Hill over cable franchising legislation—a tussle that essentially pits AT&T’s Engulf vs. Comcast’s Devour, with Tennessee cable subscribers watching only to see which hairy foot will be the one to land on them.
Thus far, however, one scrappy little David has managed to avoid getting stomped—and has in fact left its own imprint on a few backsides. That group is Tennessee’s public, educational and government access stations, or PEG. These are the stations set aside for each municipality by the cable provider as part of its franchise agreement.
PEG stations often maintain a low profile, partly because of their relative lack of funds and skeleton-crew staffs. But when the provisions of the proposed Cable Competition and Video Services Act were introduced earlier in this legislative session—including several that might have crippled PEG—community stations from West to Middle to East Tennessee sounded an alarm.
The thorniest provisions have since been amended, thanks in part to vigorous campaigning. But Tennessee’s PEG stations still sense a clear and present danger.
“It’s really a First Amendment issue,” says Michael Catalano, executive director of the Metro Educational Access Corporation (MEAC), which oversees Nashville’s Music Arts Channel 9 and iQ tv10. “This is the only place the little guy can go on the air and rant about City Hall. It’s like if somebody came in and said, ‘The Scene’s too small, we’ve got enough voices—let’s just leave everything to Knight-Ridder.’ ”
Say PEG to most Nashvillians, and they’ll either scratch their heads or think vaguely of barbershop quartets. “What’s a PEG?” one legislator was overheard asking in committee. But mention the council meetings on Channel 3 or the arts programming on Channel 9—or Channel 19’s indefatigable Bat Poet, the screwy superhero of Nashville community access—and the fog lifts.
Every major city that has a contract with a cable company has the capacity for PEG stations, thanks to an order issued by the FCC in 1972. Nashville has four: Channel 3 (government), Channel 9 (arts), Channel 10 (education) and Channel 19 (community access). Under the existing system, cable operators must negotiate with each municipality; as such, contracts and funding vary from city to city. Nashville’s PEG channels are provided for until 2010, when current provider Comcast’s contract with the city expires.
What AT&T wants, however—and it has pushed legislation in more than 30 states across the country to do so—is to scrap the current system, bypass the cities and create a one-stop statewide authority that would speed up the rate of competition.
“There is no reason to deny consumers choice for another year,” says Ted Wagnon, an Arkansas-based AT&T spokesperson, offering what has become almost a mantra for the telecommunications giant: “Where there’s competition they get choice, and where there’s choice there’s more control.”
But control is exactly what the state’s PEG stations—and its cities—say they will lose if the legislation passes. They fear that the cable companies want to reclaim their “first-tier” channels, the lucrative positions located at the upper end of the remote. And if the community-access channels are gone, they say, the public’s last pathway to televised mass media will be padlocked.
“They just don’t want to play by the rules,” says Frank Bluestein, executive director of the innovative student-staffed GHSTV station that broadcasts from the Germantown High School campus in Germantown, Tenn. “They have made it clear to us, ‘We can do what we want because we’re AT&T.’ ”
For the PEG stations, the initial warning flag was a provision that stations would have to broadcast eight contiguous hours of “non-repeating content” a day, seven days a week, or the cable provider could take back the channels. No PEG station in Tennessee could produce that much original programming—that much isn’t even demanded of networks. After much protest, mostly from educational channels, the provision was heavily amended.
“We’re surprised how much the government has listened,” says Elliot Mitchell, an MEAC board member and a supporter of community-access television since the early 1970s. Mitchell has become a key figure in opposition to the bill, due mainly to his tenacious following of the hearings and his authority on the history and technical aspects of broadcasting.
Even in its current form, he says, the legislation still contains several threats to Tennessee’s PEG stations. First, Mitchell says, there is no provision for cable and video services to provide funding for PEG stations after 2010, when Comcast’s contract with Metro Nashville expires. This issue has already come up in Texas, which already passed the cable bill—and where Houston’s PEG stations reportedly stand to lose $571,000 in funding next year.
There are also grave concerns about the technical processes, from lines to broadcast standards, by which the PEG stations would deliver their programming to AT&T under the bill. In San Antonio, AT&T drew ire for testing a system for PEG programming that has only a quarter of the picture quality of regular TV. “No other television station would tolerate this kind of damage being done to its signal,” Mitchell wrote in a letter to members of the Senate and House Commerce Committees.
The process has been an uphill battle. The major players in the fight, on both sides, have spent more than $4 million on lobbyists, advertising and so-called “Astroturf” sites that mimic grass-roots organizations. NashvillePost.com identified 22 lobbyists on the Hill working for AT&T and its allies. MEAC, by comparison, barely has enough staff to answer the phones in its cramped Nashville State studio space. The day we called, we got a guy named Mitch who fielded questions with the tone of the last soldier in Fort Apache.
AT&T won a victory Tuesday when the bill passed the Senate Commerce Committee by a vote of 6-3. “That shows the bill has momentum and support,” Ted Wagnon says. But progress has been slow. Political analyst Pat Nolan, a senior vice president at PR firm Dye Van Mol and Lawrence who also serves as vice president of Metro’s Community Access Corporation, says the controversial bills may get pushed to next session if AT&T and the cable companies cannot reach a compromise. “Nobody’s stood up to play Solomon and split the baby,” Nolan says, chuckling.
If that happens, Tennessee’s PEG stations will have won a reprieve—at least until next session. Both Mitchell and Michael Catalano say MEAC is already examining options to make channels 9 and 10 more self-supporting in the event of a worst-case scenario. If nothing else, Catalano says, the experience has been a civics lesson. He says a lobbyist told him how the system works: the bill gets formed, goes in front of legislators who might not even read it—then gets handed off to lobbyists who will pretty much write the legislation.“It was a lot more fun on Schoolhouse Rock, I can tell you that,” Elliot Mitchell says.
Very good analysis, Chris Allen, I would rather have the ignorant fools from our legislature…
And why are retiring government workers hurting the economy? Because when the bankers ruined our…
Not that its my job to do your googling, Bob.
Commenters keep making comments without checking and hoping others don't check. Here's a link from…
Actually, California is not broke. They do have a lot of debt (and so does…