Sacramento Budget Cuts Dig Into Local TV

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Governments' budget woes are so widespread — and the hunt for revenue is so broad — even pet projects like local-origination programming aren't safe.

City and county officials in the Sacramento, Calif., region have notified access grantees of the Sacramento Metropolitan Cable Commission's intent to cut the $1.3 million access budget by 25 percent.

Officials with the regional government will shift that money into the county general fund.

The cuts are not official until the city and county budgets are adopted in June, but the grantees appear unlikely to get the funding to which they are accustomed. Access supporters have already won concessions, though. At one point, regulators considered a 75 percent budget decrease.

Comcast audit?

The struggle for funds has drawn the local operator, Comcast Corp., into the limelight. Access supporters have asked the SMCC to audit Comcast's franchise-fee payments, to assure that the operator pays its full share to the government.

An audit had been scheduled before this controversy came to light, said Rich Esposto, executive director of the commission. But even if the audit discovers underpayment by Comcast, the report may not come in time to stall budget cuts.

The auditor has to check the books of other local vendors, such as MCI WorldCom Inc., to ensure they are paying their share of local utility taxes, Esposto said. The Comcast audit may not be completed until mid-June.

The cable commission is trying to balance its budget with 8 percent less funding than it received last year.

A consultant's report advised the commission to make up the deficit by cutting access funds while setting aside $500,000 for an institutional network to link up the county's schools.

17-year record

Local access has been a vital part of the media mix in the capital for 17 years. Grants help support the local PBS station as well as Access Sacramento, the community-access corporation. The latter programs two cable TV channels, two radio broadcasts that provide information on legislative activity and a community calendar Web site.

"This divisive issue has turned award-winning partnerships into 'Every man for himself,' " said Ron Cooper, executive director of the access corporation. Budget cuts will "basically devastate our services."

Bunnie Riedel, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media, added that now is not the time to trim local access. Access corporations are forging partnerships with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to serve as outlets for information in times of disaster.

Cooper said he finds it hard to believe the county's franchise-fee take has dropped 8 percent.

"In the 20-year history of cable [here], there has never been a drop in revenue," he said, noting the operator has hiked its rates and launched digital service. New homes are also being added to the franchise area, he noted.

Losses cited

Bob Smith, spokesman for Comcast's western region, said he understands how people outside the cable industry might be confused over how the system could lose revenue even as a region acquires housing stock.

But last year, Sacramento was served by AT&T Broadband, which has been acquired by Comcast. AT&T Broadband lost 500,000 customers throughout the U.S. last year, and 20,000 of them were in the Sacramento market, Smith said.

"Based on the subscriber numbers, the fees paid are accurate and appropriate," he said. The company would fully cooperate with county auditors, he added.

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