My Turn

Where PEG Fits In Squarely

2/11/2008 9:29 AM

At a public hearing in New York City on Jan. 17, a man stood up and told city officials about a category of local programming that is cable exclusive.

“You’re not going to find this on satellite,” the man said. “You’re going to find it on cable.” 

The unusual thing was, the man doesn’t work for a cable company, or even one of those for-profit programmers that rely on cable distribution to earn their profits.

The man, Michael Knobbe, runs BronxNet, the non-profit organization that operates four public-access channels on Cablevision Systems, available to about 300,000 Bronx residents. The hearing was part of Cablevision’s renewal of an expiring franchise in the borough; Time Warner Cable’s franchises in other boroughs also has been the subject of hearings.

BronxNet falls under the category of public, education and government channels. They exist as a giveback to communities by cable companies as part of their franchise agreements, a part of doing business that also creates programming that goes on their cable systems.

Those agreements now are mostly done community by community, but increasingly (about 17 states and rising) they are being done state by state, mostly so states can make it easier for telephone companies to widely roll out their own multichannel video services. Sometimes the new statewide franchises laws cut back on those PEG obligations.

As long as they’re considered “obligations,” PEG channels are vulnerable. Cablevision is the primary funder for BronxNet’s $1.4 million annual budget, including for 12 full-time staffers, according to Knobbe. The channels themselves are increasingly valuable commodities, used to provide cable-modem and Internet-based phone services in addition to standard and HDTV.

PEG channels have been getting moved from analog channels to compressed digital channels. When such a change forces customers to get (and pay for) a digital set-top in order to receive the public-access channel in, say, Flint, Mich., the courts have gotten involved and Rep. John Dingell, the powerful Democrat of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, held a hearing on the subject on Jan. 29.

Comcast apologized for its handling of the planned channel changes in Michigan, but says it still needs to figure out a way to get PEG programming off analog because all TV broadcasting is switching to digital next February. Bright House Network systems in the Tampa, Fla., area moved PEG channels to digital in December, settling one lawsuit over the shift last month.

Knobbe told me BronxNet gets along well with Cablevision. There doesn’t seem to be any threat to its four channels, although he’d like more funding in order to upgrade its, such as getting more digital servers to replace older tape machines. The channel operates from a sub-basement in Lehman College, and a flood several months ago knocked out a studio (since reopened) and an editing suite.

Speakers at the public hearing pleaded for more staff at BronxNet, whose model is to make professional productions and use them to train school kids and other volunteers in TV production. Some Bronxnet shows, including a documentary about the Hunts Point commercial area of the borough, have won local Emmys. Knobbe also would like money and gear to do live remote telecasts from community events.Bronxnet

“You’d be surprised. People watch this channel,” Bronx attorney David P. Lesch, a frequent guest on BronxNet talk show Open, told me before one such appearance. “My clients watch it.”

The public perceptions of public-access TV are of city council hearings, Wayne’s World goofiness and Robin Byrd nudity. Knobbe said Bronxnet doesn’t allow lewd programming, and producers have been suspended or kicked off the air altogether for bad behavior.

Cable companies also are developing more local programming, including such PEG staples as city council meetings, for video on demand. There should be a good fit there to exploit the local programming PEG organizations create.

Satellite doesn’t have it. But Verizon, also negotiating New York City cable franchises, has been to visit BronxNet and said nice things about the operation, Knobbe said. Unlike Cablevision, which owns local News 12 outlets, Verizon doesn’t produce local programming, he noted.

Cable operators around the country have touted PEG programming as a local edge against satellite TV, PEG advocate Bunnie Reidel, a telecommunications consultant in Columbia, Md., said. “They use it as a marketing strategy – then they do everything they can to kick it to the curb,” she said.

Maybe BronxNet, which has had some success getting underwriters such as Open sponsor Hebrew Hospital Home, can be a model of how PEG can work for communities and operators.

September