By Janice Morse Enquirer staff writer
Payments to cities for local programs may end.
The days may be numbered for cable access channels that allow people to tune into local government meetings, church sermons, even high school football games.
Congress is considering three bills that would change federal telecommunications laws. That could prompt cable operators to unplug community channels, cable-access advocates say.
"This is a 'life-or-death' thing for anybody who wants local voices to still remain in media," says Tom Bishop, head of Media Bridges Cincinnati.
The three bills seek to create new federal standards for cable franchises. Supporters say the reforms would help consumers by making the field more competitive and eliminating red tape in the cable industry. Critics warn that the proposals also could slash franchise fees that cable companies pay to local governments, which paid for community access channels and other services.
"People have come to rely on local programming that they can't get anywhere else," said Patricia Stern, executive director of the Intercommunity Cable Regulatory Commission in Sharonville. It produces cable shows for 30 local communities.
"None of the networks will cover the Loveland City Council meetings gavel-to-gavel, or the Hamilton County Commissioner meetings, or Friday night high school football games."
Stern and other cable-access advocates are urging lawmakers and citizens to oppose the bills.
The Alliance for Community Media, a national group representing more than 1,000 public-access TV centers, says national TV/video franchising would take away local officials' control over companies installing service lines along roads.
The proposed legislation would require cable companies to repay communities for damage caused by installing cable lines. But it would eliminate or reduce "rent" for using public rights-of-way.
In Cincinnati, those fees total $3.2 million a year, including a $700,000 community service fee that pays for local-access programming, officials said.
The legislative battle is occurring because state and federal lawmakers are facing increasing pressure from telecom lobbyists.
Two of the bills, in the Senate and House, aim to help telephone companies break into the TV business. Another Senate bill would eliminate local governments' franchise agreements with video/TV providers.
That bill arose from "a desire to update the telecom laws and not have new technology stifled by a patchwork of laws across the country," said Jack Finn, spokesman for the bill's sponsor, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada.
Finn contends the proposal would not have the devastating effects that cable-access advocates fear.
But Tim Broering, executive director for the Telecommunications Board of Northern Kentucky said, "This legislation would outlaw all cable franchises across the country. This would be the federal government telling local governments how to manage their right-of-ways."
Derrick Blassingame, 19, of Avondale, produces twice-monthly Cincinnati cable-access political show called "Real Talk Live." His show may not be well-known, but his audience pays close attention. Each telecast attracts 50 to 300 e-mailed comments, he said.
He says the proposed laws would cut off access to people like him.
Cable access channels provide more than 20,000 hours of local TV shows each week . That's more than all the programming produced by NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX and PBS combined, the Alliance says.
Still, it's unclear how many people watch community access shows.
But Warren County Administrator Dave Gully said citizens' comments lead him to believe that cable-access telecasts of local governments' meetings attract substantial viewership.
Copyright 2005, The Enquirer
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