MI: Tim Skubick: Cable giant holds reins

Posted on January 7, 2008 - 9:14am.

from: Lansing State Journal

Tim Skubick: Cable giant holds reins
Comcast's shift on local access reflects the times

Admittedly picking on the cable TV industry is easy. What other industry can routinely tell its customers to wait at home for a month for the repair guy to show up?

Now comes the decision to hijack local access shows from the easy to find lower tiers of the cable box to the 900 range, the Siberia of cable programming. This is a violation of principle.

When cable was in its infancy, there was competition to secure a franchise.

Local officials demanded local channels to broadcast township meetings, school board sessions or an endless array of high school band concerts and football games.

Local residents could vicariously participate in the democracy without leaving home.

Normal folks could get their opinions on the local stations. And the politicians got free exposure to boot.

Cable companies gladly acquiesced because the municipalities had them over the barrel: No access channels meant no contract. They even tossed in expensive studios for citizens to produce their shows.

Democracy was served.

But then tiny cable firms were cannibalized, resulting in a landscape dominated by a few conglomerates.

Enter one of those, Comcast, with its decision to relocate the local channels in Michigan, which may become a test case for the rest of the country. Local communities complain the decision was unilateral. Comcast counters it gave a 30-day notice and has even run public service announcements telling its 1.3 million users where to gripe.

"The channels aren't going away," the company contends.

Comcast will provide a free converter box so everyone can access the 900 range. But after one year, the monthly cost will jump to $4.20 for the box.

Some senior citizens may be priced out of the local access market.

There are whispers about lawsuits and the Legislature is being asked to get into the act.

It's just a guess, but betcha all this is about maximizing profits. Exiling local access to the 900 range frees up the popular lower tier for money to be made. And in some cases, for competitive reasons, those expensive local access studios are being mothballed as well. If citizens want to play TV, they'll have to find other studios and pay for it.

Now it's the companies that have the locals over the barrel. With little or no competition, local officials have little leverage as the changes are shoved down their throats.

Cable companies have a right to make money, but a principle is being trampled as they connive to fatten the bottom line. In the beginning cable agreed to foster participation in our democracy.

So much for that.

What do you think? Tim Skubick is a local television correspondent who writes a column for the State Journal on Fridays. Write him c/o Lansing State Journal, 120 E. Lenawee St., Lansing, MI 48919.

( categories: Comcast | MICHIGAN | State Franchises )