We’ve all had that experience where someone suddenly becomes your “best pal” because they want something from you or can use your friendship in some way. For most of us, that kind of sidling up is excruciatingly transparent and usually disgusting.
In a publicized memo (see “Letter to FCC Outlines Deal Commitments,” Multichannel.com, Dec. 3), Comcast highlighted its commitment to localism, the public interest and PEG channels.
“Comcast also has demonstrated its commitment to local programming, including sports and public affairs, and in providing support for public, educational, and government (PEG) access programming. We want to use the combined resources of NBC and Comcast to strengthen localism.”
“With respect to PEG channels, we will not migrate PEG channels to digital delivery on any Comcast cable system until the system has converted to all digital distribution (i.e., until all analog channels have been eliminated), or until a community otherwise agrees to digital PEG channels, whichever comes first.
“To enhance localism and strengthen educational and governmental access programming, we will also develop a platform to host PEG content On Demand and On Demand Online within three years of closing.”
Over the years that I have worked with the PEG community I can attest to the fact that Comcast has been less than stellar when it comes to PEG access television. Take Philadelphia, for instance, corporate headquarters of Comcast. Public access advocates fought for 25 years to get what was in the franchise agreement, a public-access channel and funding. Comcast was at City Hall every step of the way blocking the effort. I was told by one council office that Comcast had shown the council videos of the Klu Klux Klan and of some naked woman in New York that solicits on the air. Apparently Comcast had told council that’s what they’d get if they had public-access television. By the way, the naked lady wasn’t on public access, she was buying time on Local Origination.
But there’s more. Just two weeks ago, Comcast informed the villages of Mundelein and Graystake, Ill., as well as the Community High School District 128 and the Cook Memorial Library District, that it will no longer cablecast village, school or library board meetings. Mundelein’s assistant village administrator, Mike Flynn, thinks Comcast is obligated, because of the franchise agreement, to provide the playback. The village will be discussing whether or not there’s legal recourse. Good luck to them.
Two years ago, Comcast pulled the same stunt in Indiana after that state passed statewide franchising. They shut down operations in Hammond, Portage, Mishawaka, Valparaiso, Plymouth, Goshen, South Bend and Elkhart, giving those communities a whopping 30 days to find housing, hire staff and develop an access organization. So much for “strengthening localism.”
There were many of us scratching our heads a couple of weeks ago over the announcement that Comcast was pulling out of the Michigan lawsuit and the Petition for Declaratory Ruling before the FCC. That was the instance where Comcast had slammed PEG channels into the digital tier and Dearborn filed suit to force them to return those channels to the Basic analog tier. Comcast cited several reasons why they would place the PEG channels back on the basic tier; they said that they had found space on the basic tier for the PEG channels “through other analog reclamation efforts.” Several of us speculated about their motives and there were expressions of surprise since Comcast never, ever backs down. So now we know.
In order to become a broadcaster, Comcast has to toughen up its public-interest creds. It has to prove worthy of the license. It’s the same game the cable operators used to play in the old days of franchising: promises of lots of PEG channels, a lavish promise of funding and super commitments to the local community. And once they got into the rights of way all those promises became a distant memory and they did everything they could to make sure PEG would fail, including slipping a bit into the telecom act that prevents access centers from using PEG grants for operating costs.
There’s a whole community of people out here that know broadcasters have not lived up to their public interest obligations, especially when it comes to localism. And there’s another whole community that knows cable operators often don’t live up to their obligations, even when they’re written in black and white in franchise agreements.
This is uncharted territory for Comcast or any cable operator. Perhaps the white hot scrutiny of the Fair Trade Commission, Justice Department and the FCC will offer it a chance to prove it can live up to its promises.
The “memo” to the FCC from Comcast executive vice president David Cohen is remarkable in its predictability. When cable operators think PEG can advance their agenda, they are PEG’s best friend in the whole wide world. Once that agenda has been achieved, it’s like that “best pal” who says, “See ya later, alligator.” At least until the next time they need something.