As cable operators shift program services to make more room for HDTV content, producers of local programming are pushing back, vowing that public, educational and government channels will not quietly be “channel-slammed” into cable Siberia.
Producers are soliciting support from local governments in the fight to retain long-term, low-number channel berths. Some are threatening legal action, citing agreements that call for PEG content to be carried on the “lowest tier” or viewable by the majority of subscribers.
Two such cases are playing out in Reno, Nev., and Wisconsin, where Charter Communications has told city and local production officials that PEG channels will be moved before the end of the year, to free their former analog channel placements for new HD content.
In Reno, Charter notified city officials and the local nonprofit corporation which oversees PEG programming, Sierra Nevada Community Access Television, that four PEG slots will be moved from channels 13, 15, 16 and 17 to the 200s to make room for more HD programming. Such a move would mean that people who want to watch those channels would require a free converter box from Charter.
Les Smith, executive director of SNCAT, said he was told the PEG channels would be simulcast in analog and digital until November. But in the last few weeks, consumers have received new channel-lineup cards which list new numbers for the PEG channels.
Access corporations are hampered in their efforts to legally challenge such a move: Courts often rule that a corporation can’t be personally harmed by the actions of another. So the producers have asked the city to seek a temporary restraining order to stop the PEG channel shift. The city council on Aug. 21 asked the city attorney to file for a temporary restraining order to prevent the channel shift.
Smith said channel switches harm the most vulnerable viewers: the handicapped, the mentally ill and homebound, who rely on the most basic cable packages for information. Charter is offering free boxes, but consumers are worried there will be other fees, such as installation or, eventually, a box rental fee.
The Wisconsin Association of Public Access Channels is also opposing a Charter PEG move. There, the operator anticipates moving them into the 900-channel block. John Foust, the organization’s president, said the move is particularly harmful because there are no networks programmed between the high 300 channel numbers and the new PEG slots, meaning the latter channels would be missed by even the most determined channel surfers.
Wisconsin’s new state franchising law “appears to allow” Charter to move the channels, but as with any new law, passages are ambiguous,” Foust said.
“The definition of a tier is up in the air, I think,” he said, noting the law doesn’t specify whether PEG is guaranteed carriage on analog or digital.
Madison, the largest city in the Access group, has protested the movement of its 35-year-old, dedicated municipal channel, with the mayor warning Charter it may pursue litigation, according to Foust.
Deb Vinsel, the interim executive director of the Alliance for Community Media, said there is no formal effort to push back against these channel shifts. But as “channel-slamming” notices go out, producers are sharing information and anger is growing. “The stewards of the community are pushing back,” she said.