News

Forum Nets PEG Plans Draw Fire

5/16/1999 8:00 PM Eastern

The Forum Network is drawing a new round of flak for trying
to launch by late this summer or early fall with carriage on community-access channels.

TFN -- a partnership between The Freedom Forum and public
broadcaster WETA -- is trying to create a regional nonprofit public-affairs network for
the Washington, D.C., area.

Ed Turner, a former Cable News Network executive, is
president of TFN, and he has been working on its drive to secure carriage.

The new network, originally set to debut this spring, has
had trouble finding berths on the half-dozen cable systems that serve the Beltway and its
adjoining environs, so its debut has been delayed to September or so.

During the past few months, TFN officials have been making
presentations to county and other officials, seeking to get temporary carriage to do a
"soft launch" on PEG-access (public, educational and government) channels.

The lobbying by TFN to get an analog toehold through PEG
channels has sparked vocal criticism from, among others, the Alliance for Community Media,
a national nonprofit organization that's an advocate for PEG access, and Montgomery
Community Television Inc., a nonprofit public-access corporation that runs two PEG
channels in Maryland.

The Alliance argued that PEG channels are "set-aside
electronic green space" earmarked for the community, and not for a
multimillion-dollar cable network. TFN partner The Freedom Forum is a media-advocacy
foundation created by USA Today founder Allen Neuharth.

In the latest round of fire between the Alliance and TFN,
Alliance executive director Bunnie Riedel issued a press release maintaining that two
"big guns" -- syndicated columnist Carl Rowan and Washington, D.C., Council
member Charlene Drew Jarvis -- have been trying to drum up support for TFN in the District
of Columbia so it can get an access channel there.

Drew Jarvis' actions are "troubling,"
because her nephew, Bill Jarvis, is WETA's general counsel, Riedel claimed.

Drew Jarvis couldn't be reached for comment, but Rowan
had plenty to say. He pointed out that he is a board member of both The Freedom Forum and
TFN, adding that he talked about TFN with the public-access board in Washington of his own
volition.

"I wanted Washington to get involved in the launching
of the network," Rowan said, adding that his effort has been totally thwarted by the
Alliance.

"I wanted minority children to get special training
through The Forum Network," he added. "There wasn't a [PEG] channel with
anything worth anything on it. But there is a self-serving bureaucracy around these
public-access channels. They've got their fiefdom."

TFN had planned to partner with public-access channels by
training their staff and offering internships to youths, for example, in exchange for PEG
carriage, according to Linwood Lloyd, WETA's executive vice president and chief
operating officer.

TFN was only seeking carriage on PEG channels for five to
18 months or so, he added, until channel capacity opens up.

"There was nothing nefarious about what The Freedom
Forum is trying to do," Rowan said. "We were not trying to take something for
nothing. All we were trying to do was borrow a channel for a few months."

Rowan said he eventually expects TFN to be carried by
District Cablevision in Washington.

Lloyd said TFN's efforts to get carriage are being
hamstrung not only by local cable systems' lack of capacity until they complete
rebuilds, but by the numerous system sales and swaps that are pending in the Beltway area.

For example, he added, TFN has been told by District
Cablevision -- which is now owned by AT&T Broadband & Internet Services (formerly
Tele-Communications Inc.) -- that it should talk to Comcast Corp. about carriage because
Comcast is getting that system as part of the AT&T Corp.-MediaOne Group Inc. deal.

District Cablevision general manager Earle Jones said his
system is looking to add TFN once it increases its channel capacity. He declined to say
when the network could expect that to happen.

As for District Cablevision's possible future
ownership by Comcast and whether that issue is holding up TFN's plans in Washington,
Jones said, "That's all up in the air: I'm operating
business-as-usual."

Last week, Turner insisted that TFN is no longer banking on
getting carriage on PEG channels. "PEG is no longer really a factor in us getting on
the air," he said.

In contrast, Lloyd said TFN is considering a variety of
options, including PEG channels.

"We're still pursuing all strategies," he
said. "We're hoping to make arrangements -- with cable, access or PEG -- until
cable systems get capacity. We're looking everywhere."

Riedel said the TFN case has national implications, as she
is seeing PBS stations eyeing carriage on PEG channels. "It is supposed to be
community programming," she added.

And in the case of TFN, she pointed out that much of its
schedule would be rebroadcasts of WETA shows or fare from the station's library, with
only some original fare.

Montgomery Community TV executive director William Shade
said his local cable system currently has 12 PEG channels in use. "If [TFN] goes on,
it will have to disenfranchise one of our PEG programmers," he added.

WETA and The Freedom Forum will probably launch TFN in
September, at least as a broadcast-digital multicast channel, Lloyd said. "We want to
establish some credibility and be the voice of the 2000 elections," he said.

Lloyd added, "We're not in the business of
antagonizing a group."

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