PEG Outlet Closes in Funding Dispute

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Columbus, Ohio, was without a public, educational and governmental (PEG) access station last week, when contract talks between the city and its longtime provider collapsed.

Community 21, which has produced local PEG programming for more than 20 years, went off the air April 7, after it declined to accept the city's renewal proposal.

"As of right now, Columbus has no PEG access provider," said Community 21 executive director Pat Williams.

Community 21 chose to shut down rather than accept a contract that called for a 50 percent cut to its $400,000 annual budget and required it to pay $90,000 for the city-owned equipment it uses.

"It would strip the operation," Williams said. "The city slashed our budget by 50-percent while demanding the same service parameters."

Williams said the city wanted to sell the equipment to the station in order to remove any potential legal liability it might face.

Assistant city attorney Chris Bates said Columbus was dragged into a lawsuit against Community 21 several years ago. In that proceeding, the plaintiff's lawyers tried to characterize Columbus as the manager of Community 21 because city equipment was used to produce the programming.

"Although the argument was not successful, we can't count on that happening again," Bates said.

For now, the city is running an electronic bulletin board as it ponders its next step. Officials could theoretically start negotiations with another of the providers that responded to the community's request for proposals.

As of last week, the station had refused to turn over the disputed equipment until the city paid it $53,000 owed from last year. It was not clear how long the PEG station would sit idle.

"One option would be to go to the next bidder and begin negotiations," said Columbus telecommunications administrator Jonathan Nappier. "Obviously, that would take some time."

Industry observers have criticized Columbus officials, claiming that the city's PEG-access channel has historically been "grossly underfunded."

For example, Arlington, Va., which has roughly 60,000 cable viewers, receives $400,000 in funding each year, as well as a $300,000 budget for equipment. Columbus received just $400,000 and is looking to slice that outlay in half.

"It was already a criminal situation," said Bunny Riedel, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Community Media, a PEG-access advocacy group in Washington. "How can you expect resources when you don't have a commitment to share some of those franchises fees with the station?"

Williams said PEG access support came from an estimated $5 million in franchise fees paid by Time Warner Cable, Ameritech New Media and Insight Communications Co.

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