News

PEG's Blurry Future in Calif.

1/09/2009 7:00 PM Eastern

Communities throughout California will see less public-access programming this year, as cable operators turn support of those channels over to cities and counties under the terms of the 2006 law that put the state in charge of cable franchises.

Already, Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles has notified producers that 12 of the city's 13 public, educational and government (PEG) studios will be shut down, leaving only one facility, on the city's East Side, to serve all producers. Charter Communications closed its studio in Long Beach on Jan. 1.

San Francisco's access corporation anticipates the loss of a monthly 52-cent per-subscriber fee, collected by Comcast to support access there, when that system opts into state oversight in June 30.

“Public access will be a very different thing here come June,” said San Francisco Community Television executive director Zane Blaney.

The California law, called the Digital Infrastructure & Video Competition Act (DIVCA), changes the way operators support public, educational and government programming. When municipalities handled franchising, cities and operators entered into deals that required providers to pay for equipment, to open and operate local studios and to train future producers, often in addition to the payment of franchise fees.

Under the state law, operators are now required to pay a 5% franchise fee to communities, plus 1% of gross revenue earmarked for use only to support public access. It is up to cities to decide whether that 5% fee, for the use of their rights of way, should be used to continue to support public access at the level traditionally underwritten by cable providers.

So far, municipal policy advisers are interpreting DIVCA as directing cities to use only the 1% levy for PEG infrastructure, leaving no funds for operating costs.

Cities have traditionally put the franchise-fee revenue into their general funds, where the cable proceeds help to pay for non-cable municipal services, including police and fire staffing. Local officials are loath to pay for TV shows when they are mulling recession-related layoffs.

David Hernandez, president of the Los Angeles Public Access Coalition, criticized that city for failing to conduct a community impact study months ago, when city officials knew a change in PEG support was coming. He has asked Attorney General Jerry Brown to get involved and stop the immediate studio shut down, he said. Brown has refused, stating this is a municipal issue, but the coalition has asked him to reconsider.

In the meantime, Hernandez has written a letter to Time Warner Cable requesting a $1 refund on his cable bill — the amount collected to produce public access. He'll launch a campaign to get all subscribers to ask for refunds, he said, noting that during the recent carriage dispute between the operator and Viacom, Time Warner promised consumers they would receive a refund if it dropped the 19 channels.

“What's the difference?” he said of that dispute and the argument over PEG productions.

The coalition is also meeting with the ACLU to determine any legal options. For instance, the public access producers dispute the city's interpretation that the 1% collected from operators can only be used for infrastructure, like cameras and studio rent, and not for operational or training costs.

At minimum his group would like to forestall, for a few months, Time Warner Cable's closing of the 12 studios.

Ron Cooper, executive director of Access Sacramento and a board member on the state's chapter of the Alliance for Community Media, stated his belief that it was not the intent of the legislature to curtail PEG programming, citing the 1% fee provision.

“The reality in California that's unquestioned is our variety of voices,” he said. “Those of us who support public access see it as a forum … which gives communities an invitation to step up and speak in whatever language they want.”

PEG is an “electronic green space,” a publicly owned resource where everyone should participate, he added.

Blaney said the city and county of San Francisco traditionally set aside 0.2% of the 5% franchise fee, about $300,000, for PEG operating support. That is split between government, educational and public producers equally. But when Comcast stops collecting its local PEG pass-through, his access corporation will be hard pressed to find other sources to make its annual budget. The corporation has asked the board to consider providing access with 0.75% of the franchise fee, about $1.2 million, but that scenario is unlikely given the debt faced by the city and county, he predicted.

San Francisco supervisor Ross Mirkarimi introduced a resolution asking state and federal lawmakers to reform PEG funding through the municipal level, with the goal of letting cities decide how to use any PEG-specific funds. A hearing on that proposal should take place in early February.

Blaney said his group has also worked with the offices of two Democratic Congress members, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to draft possible federal legislation to reform PEG funding.

September