PEG Community Sees Challenges Coming From Combined Comcast/TWC

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Communications Daily  Feb 27 2014

The public, educational and government channel community plans to continue its push to protect the interests of PEG channels while monitoring Comcast’s efforts to buy Time Warner Cable for about $45 billion, PEG advocates said in interviews this week. If the companies combine, PEG channels could be negatively impacted, they said.

American Community Television is working to schedule meetings with Comcast and gain its support for the Community Access Preservation Act, said Bunnie Riedel, its executive director. The bill, reintroduced last year by Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., would order cable operators to provide support for PEG channels (CD Dec 11 p6). “If they made that part of their stated commitment, that would go a long way in easing fear,” she said. Comcast needs to show that it has a real public interest obligation and show a commitment to the local community, she said. Some PEG channels have said Comcast carries them in more favorable channel positions than other pay-TV companies, after it agreed to FCC conditions on its 2011 deal to buy control of NBCUniversal (CD Feb 3 p17). A Comcast spokeswoman referred our request for comment to its most recent NBCUniversal order compliance report, which discussed its efforts to make PEG content available online and on VOD in addition to on cable channels.

“We’re going to keep trying” to get the CAP Act to pass, said Paul LeValley, executive director at Arlington Independent Media (AIM), a PEG channel in Arlington, Va. “But it’s tough because cable companies are not very anxious to allow national requirements on what they need to provide in exchange for the use of the right-of-way.” There’s plenty of pushback against it and there aren’t many federal lawmakers who see a tremendous political gain in supporting it, he said. “It should be obvious to them that a little space in the marketplace of ideas ought to be reserved for the public and that really requires federalprotection because it is under assault in places all over the country.”
Comcast buying Time Warner Cable is “worrisome” for PEG channels that would go from working with four large cable operators to three, said Riedel. “I’ve seen the cable operators become more and more entrenched as they’ve gotten bigger and bigger and they’ve moved away from being part of the local community into being these very large national corporations,” she said. “They tend to be very intransigent when it comes to PEG provisions.” Comcast becoming larger and moving into more communities makes it more difficult to deal with, she said. Even in places where PEG channels no longer have negotiating power due to statewide franchising, Comcast remains powerful at the state level and more influential with state regulators than other cable operators, she added. City and county franchise authorities are expected to approve franchise transfers letting Comcast buy Time Warner Cable (CD Feb 14 p16).

The impact on PEG channels would likely be negative, said Tracy Rosenberg, Media Alliance executive director. “Whenever we’ve seen cable companies get bigger and stronger with their market position, PEG channels have suffered accordingly.” Further concentration in the cable sector won’t benefit PEG channels, she said. When there’s less competition in the cable sector, the incentives to provide PEG services to local communities are reduced, she said: “This cuts down on civic interaction, educational opportunities and technology access.” Negotiations are dependent on having options, Rosenberg added: “When you cut down competition in the sector, it ties the hands of local communities to be able to negotiate.”

Arlington County negotiates with Comcast in franchising agreements for AIM, LeValley said. Arlington is lucky, he said: “Verizon and Comcast have been very responsive and very good actors.” But the county may have some difficulty negotiating with Comcast if it buys Time Warner Cable, he said. “One of the biggest problems with the county negotiating with Comcast is that Comcast is already so big, it’s hard to find people who are in authority.” Issues are passed on to lawyers or to staff at Comcast’s headquarters in Philadelphia, “and the county never hears from them again,” LeValley said.

Franchising agreements’ PEG terms are almost always the result of negotiations between local governments and the cable company, LeValley said. Comcast could opt into a Virginia statewide franchise in the negotiation process, he said. But Comcast hasn’t indicated any interest in the state franchise, he said: “They seem amenable to doing negotiations at the local level.” Later on if Comcast
buys Time Warner Cable, it could have much more power to influence legislation at the local, state and national levels “to try to legislate things like PEG access out of existence,” he said. “That’s always a possibility, so we’ll have to see.”

The cable franchise for the City Channel in Milwaukee is handled by a statewide cable franchising law, said Dennis Geraghty, the station manager at the channel. “We’ve lost a number of PEG channels in Wisconsin because there wasn’t a good funding mechanism in the state law. … I don’t anticipate that would get any better with the merger because it’s out of our control.”

Riedel said she would like Comcast to make stronger commitments to PEG channels compared to provisions agreed to in the Comcast-NBCUniversal order. The conditions pertaining to PEG channels in that order turned out to be “anemic,” Riedel said. “There was no real teeth in their commitment to PEG the last time … I’m hopeful that we can have an honest conversation on what’s needed.” — Kamala Lane (klane@warren-news.com)

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